Saturday, January 23, 2010

Phase One, in which Doris Gets Her Oats

I've scoured the internet in search of other folks who are making DIY comics, and there are some very inspiring blogs on the subject (I recommend reMIND, Near Death, and Wormworld, for starters). While there are quite a few examples of people doing things right, I've learned a lot (maybe even more) from people doing things wrong. In fact, if I'm looking for instructive screw-ups, I need look no further than my own portfolio. This isn't the first time I've quit my job to attempt the summit of Mount Comic. My first try was called Gordon and the Stareater.

By the summer of 2005, I had been working for a year and a half at an online game company in Seoul, Korea. It was a great setup -- I had gotten a promotion, I was living in a spiffy loft apartment in a swanky neighborhood, and I loved my coworkers. Still, my job didn't let me make art anymore and I felt a little out of place in the producer role. I did my best, but at some point it just didn't make much sense for me to stick around.

When I quit, my work visa had four months left on it and I had about three grand in my bank account. I ditched the loft and dragged my sofa over to my friend John Kim's apartment. I didn't really have much of a plan, but I knew one thing: I wanted to make a graphic novel.

Gordon and the Stareater had been kicking around in the back of my head since college. Attempts to work on it during my off-hours had never gotten much past the concept phase. This free stretch was a perfect opportunity to finally sink my teeth into my dream project.

I felt pretty guilty about couch-surfing through John's entire summer, so I made myself as scarce as possible. I spent a couple of weeks scouting good drawing spots -- I drew the first page in a coffee shop near COEX mall, then drew the next couple of pages in the Seocho public library. Right out of the gate, I had logistical problems -- Seoul in August is a sauna, and every library I visited was like a sweat lodge. I'd probably have set the thermostat at somewhere below the boiling point of water, but the librarians had other ideas. My pages became grey smudge-swamps. My sweat turned out to be a pretty decent fixative, making erasing a high-friction, high-risk endeavor.

About a month into things, I discovered that the International Studies library at Seoul National University didn't check student IDs. There was sweet, sweet air conditioning for us sissy foreigners, and the library windows looked out on a beautiful, cicada-filled forest. That month may turn out to have been the high point of my life -- the days were spent drawing spaceships and eating lunch among the evergreens, and in the evenings I studied Korean and went for long riverside walks with Jiyoung, my future wife.

Here are the first couple of pages (if you're a glutton for punishment, you can see the rest of them here):

I blogged about my comic then, too. I had maybe ten people following along, and that was enough for me to feel like a mini-celebrity. I remember watching the students at the library and thinking "these people have no idea that the great Nate Simpson is drawing his magnum opus right here in their midst!" Ha.

Well, my visa ran out, but not before I fell in love with Jiyoung. The only way I could stay in Korea was to get another job, and that meant teaching English. I chose a split shift, thinking that would make it easier for me to continue working on my comic. The idea was that I'd teach from 6:30AM to 11:00AM, then draw until 6PM, then work again until 9:00. My memories of that year are a sleep-deprived blur of Katamari Damacy, MST3K reruns, and napping. Gordon and the Stareater was dead.

Looking back, the book may have been doomed from the start. Part of the problem was that I had sat on the story for too long. Or more precisely, I had never come up with a story, but had instead accumulated a decade's worth of labyrinthine backstory. I still can't believe I drew ten pages without having any idea where the story was headed. Artists often think more in terms of scenes than stories, and we end up with these precious tableaux that absolutely must be included, regardless of their irrelevance to the storyline. For a good example of this tendency writ large, see the movie "9."

Stareater had a few other handicaps:
  • Revision-freak that I am, I had trouble finishing the drawings before erasing clean through the paper.
  • I only had a laptop for coloring (not to mention, I didn't really have any ideas about color to begin with).
  • The main character looked like me. I'm still immature and self-obsessed, but I've learned not to put myself in the stories anymore. Nor are Project Waldo's female characters perfect, untouchable ice-queens. These are both good reasons to jettison any characters you came up with before you finished puberty.
  • I didn't plan the dialogue before drawing the pages. I'd just draw a bunch of people standing around with their mouths open and then figure out what they were saying afterwards. And I used simple ovals for speech balloons, which drives me crazy now.
  • I didn't really have a publishing strategy -- I guess I thought Joe Quesada would just happen across my little website and immediately fly out to Korea, contract in hand.
  • I didn't have access to the feedback and tips that regularly appear in the comments section of this blog.
  • I didn't have Jiyoung around all the time to keep me chipper.
Most of these mistakes are so boneheaded that I doubt this list will be of any use to anybody but me. If nothing else, you can feel better about your own project because you're competing with people who blow whole decades drawing space operas in which they've cast themselves.

I don't want to end on a sour note, so here are a couple more comics I drew in Korea. For those who think I draw too slowly, please note that I drew both of these comics inside of fifteen minutes on a pair of bar napkins. In case it isn't obvious, I was intoxicated.

I already know somebody's going to point out that these are better than anything I've done since. Duh.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


A couple of months ago I mentioned that I had taken a short(ish) break from Project Waldo to draw a pinup for a real live comic. Well, an official announcement has been made, so I can finally talk about it. My first entry into the world of grown-up comics is this drawing for the upcoming Viking trade paperback from Image Comics (click to enlarge):

Written by Ivan Brandon and illustrated by Nic Klein, Viking has earned some justifiable critical praise over the past year, mainly on the strength of Ivan's hard-boiled characters and Nic's gorgeous painterly style. I especially enjoyed the mini-romance that unfolds between Egil (a bloody-minded Viking version of the Tasmanian Devil) and a stray kitten that shows up after one of Egil's many gruesome head-splitting sessions. For my pinup, I tried to show how a kitten might express its affection for a Viking in terms the recipient would comprehend.

It's hard to fully express how grateful I am to both Ivan and Nic for letting me participate in this enterprise. Hopefully I'll get more chances to work with them both down the road.

Project Waldo proceeds apace, with pages 9, 10, and 11 drawn and page 12 in progress. I can't show any of it here, which sucks because I'm fairly happy with how they're turning out so far. I really only have one more Project Waldo image to post here (the color version of page 8), so I'm going to have to figure out some other stuff to post until the first issue comes out. I may double back and show some development sketches for the first 8 pages... if there's anything else you'd like me to talk about here, I'm open to suggestions.

A few people have asked where things stand with publishers. I'd probably be stricken by lightning if I got into specifics, but I can say that the project has attracted persistent interest from several high-profile companies. I think it's likely that Project Waldo will be published by an established company, though I haven't rushed to sign anything. I'm happy to self-fund the comic for as long as I can, especially as the lack of hard deadlines allows me to learn through semi-directed experimentation (and to try out techniques suggested by commenters on this blog). I'll be running out of cash soon enough, however, and when the music stops I'll have to rush to find an open chair. We'll see how that goes.

Finally, if you haven't seen Avatar in 3D yet, stop reading this and get thee to a theater. Regardless of what you think of the story, this movie marks the firing of a starting pistol, and the race is on. The bang has no doubt been heard by everyone who ever wanted to make their imaginary worlds tangible. I left the theater with a strong desire to be among the first to find out exactly how much else could be done with Mister Cameron's new paint box.

I wonder what Moebius thinks of the film. It's hard to deny that Avatar bears a distinct resemblance to Arzach. Probably just coincidence, right? I hope not. I think we should all be ripping off Moebius as much as possible.