Friday, April 23, 2010

Discipline and Punish

Almost immediately after you get married, you start outsourcing stuff to your spouse. For example, I am now the toilet-cleaning guy. I did it a few times in a row, and now I'll be doing it for the rest of my life. Another example: Jiyoung waters the plants. I used to know how to water plants, but now that she does it, I've completely shut down the plant-watering part of my brain. I don't even know how to get the water from the sink to the plant. It's a mystery. 

When Jiyoung went off to work a month ago, it was like half of my brain vanished. That half apparently included the machinery responsible for self-discipline. With her nearby all day, it was difficult to drift too far from the path. It's not like she was looking over my shoulder, but the house was filled with a general sense of focused productivity. With her gone, the house has quickly filled with a new sense of "let's play PS3, surf the web, take long lunches, and snack continuously."

Well, I figured out a way to not only recover my work ethic, but to increase my productivity. Frequent contributor Eagle has directed me to a streaming video site called Livestream, where several comic artists broadcast their desktops live while they work in Photoshop. That's a level of openness that I'm not ready to attempt, but the site also lets you broadcast from a webcam. Henceforth, from Monday through Friday between 9am and 6pm Pacific time, my little rat-fink webcam will tell the whole internet whether I'm shirking.

It works. I've been drawing my butt off. And the beauty of it is that it doesn't matter whether anybody actually watches the feed -- which is good, because I look sort of like a cross between Prince Charles and an ostrich. What matters is that somebody could be watching. The internet is now my Panopticon! If my mind starts to wander, all I have to do is look at that beady little electronic eye to the left of my monitor. It's like living with HAL.

Anyway, my Livestream feed is on the left toolbar. Livestream also supports chatting, but I keep the client minimized while I work. If you send me a message, please don't be sad if I don't respond. I don't let myself check the chat box until the end of the day.

In other news, my mom got me an Ergotron desk mount LCD arm for my birthday. Now my Cintiq is connected to the desk by a fully articulated steel armature. It looks like this:

Here's a video of another guy's setup. This thing is spectacular. It's great to be able to change your posture whenever your neck or back starts to complain. You can even hold the monitor in your lap like a sketchbook. The only problem is that I'm worried webcam/HAL will somehow commandeer the arm and bludgeon me to death with my own Cintiq.

Something else I got for my birthday: Viva il Ciclissimo, co-authored by Katsuhiro Otomo and Katsuya Terada. The two artists went to Europe to watch the Giro d'Italia bike race, and then drew one of the most beautiful illustrated books I've ever seen. I hadn't seen anything Otomo had drawn since Akira, but this book shows that he's been busy turning into some sort of art god. Click the image to see more.

Finally, a word of advice: if you're having trouble getting to the finish line (in my case, I'm staggering toward page 24 with a head-full of dehydration-induced hallucinations and a pantload of exhaustion-poop), listen to this song and imagine you're participating in one of the many studying montages from Real Genius. I admit that I did this. I'd like to suggest that I did it because I found it ironically humorous and not because it filled me with a sense of purpose that blazed with the majestic intensity of a thousand nerdy suns.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Fat Man and Little Girl

If you're on the lookout for a good podcast, you may want to give Radiolab a spin. It's nominally a science podcast, but the hosts are so charming and the format so creative that it's easy to forget that you're also learning something. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich have a knack for unlocking the latent entertainment in just about any topic, from archaeology to zoology. Their favorite haunt is neurology -- V.S. Ramachandran and Oliver Sacks contribute so frequently that they should probably be credited as co-hosts (I'd like to take this opportunity submit my nomination of Sacks for Most Huggable Scientist, and if such an award does not yet exist, somebody needs to get on that).

I can't pretend that I completely understand the mental machinery they describe (I'm not sure anybody does), but there's a common thread that connects every interview: this idea that the mind is not a unified entity, but is instead a loose coalition of independent operators that may occasionally work at cross purposes. In extreme cases, you can end up with hemispheres that have dramatically different goals (see alien hand syndrome). The whole notion of a single identity starts to look like a gross oversimplification of a much more complicated reality. What's your favorite color? There may be ten different and completely legitimate answers to that question.

It's hard not to speculate about the ways that this sort of inner diversity may affect artistic creativity. I've started to think that whatever agency is responsible for the good bits of Project Waldo is completely separate from the mind that's composing this blog post. I've heard many artists talk about "tuning in to their muse" or "getting in the zone" when they work, and I've spent many years attempting to get that well of creativity to flow on demand. Those attempts have been mostly unsuccessful.

Once a month, I attend the Tuesday Art Group, a gathering where game and comic artists congregate to sketch and talk and look at one other's work. Some blindingly talented people show up to this thing -- folks like Vinod Rams and his wife Emily Fiegenschuh fill giant sketchbooks with endless, effortless streams of gorgeous artwork. It's hard not to feel like Salieri in a room full of Mozarts. In any event, the people looking over your shoulder are people you'd like to impress. And for the life of me, I can barely manage a stick figure in this setting. It's gotten to the point where I've started to feel like an impostor. 

It's certainly not the first time I've experienced the art version of a bashful bladder -- sitting beside Brandon Graham at this year's Emerald City convention, I was stunned by the ease with which he whipped out sketches for fans. I kept thinking, "there's no way I could do this. Every character drawing I made would end up a stunted, homunculoid atrocity." 

Radiolab has prompted me to think about this problem in different terms. I've started to wonder if it's not so much a problem of finding my creative voice as it is about turning down the volume on a second, louder voice that's been shouting it down. The metaphor that comes to mind is of a room that contains a shy but poetic little girl and her hulking, overbearing agent. The room's door has a little grill to talk through, and I come to it every day hoping to hear some poetry. When I show up, the fat guy starts berating the child: "YOU'VE GOT TO COME UP WITH SOMETHING GOOD THIS TIME! THEY'RE NOT GOING TO LIKE YOU ANYMORE IF YOU BLOW THIS!" And he keeps shouting even as the kid begins her recitation. Of course I can't hear that little voice through the door with all that yelling going on. On rare occasions, perhaps when the man is asleep, I can sneak up to the door and catch a snippet of what the girl's saying. Of course, as soon as the agent realizes I'm there, the din resumes. 

I also suspect it's the agent who's so eager to take the credit when I return to the room with news that someone liked the poetry.  "I'M PRETTY DARN GREAT, DON'T YOU THINK?" I don't suppose the girl really cares what anybody thinks.

So I guess it's not so much a problem of getting the girl to talk. It's a problem of getting the big fat guy to shut up for a second.

Monday, April 5, 2010

A New Ball for Juggling

My wife got a job! 

I'm so proud of her -- it's hard enough for locals to find work in America these days, so you can imagine what a coup it is for a Korean to land a job here. Not just any job, mind you, but a good job! I'm reminded of how helpless I felt when I was looking for work in Korea - I couldn't have gotten a job as a dishwasher, let alone something resembling a career. I know I don't really have the right to be proud of Jiyoung, since I didn't raise her or anything. But whatever. I'm proud and a little awed. She's so freakin' smart! And brave. And employed! She's also cute.

This development is relevant to this blog in a more direct way, of course. I still need to make some money at some point, and the sooner the better. But there's a lot more runway ahead, and there isn't a brick wall at the end of it anymore. The idea of turning comics into a career just got more plausible. 

Meanwhile, Project Waldo is getting pretty close -- the linework for the last pages is coming together and final coloring should be underway by the end of the month. I'm excited about moving on to the second issue and trying to apply some of the lessons I've learned during the bumpy creation of issue one. Still, Project Waldo has been saddled with a fairly cumbersome rule set -- with all the little fiddly bits, the whole thing moves forward so slowly that it sometimes feels like it's actually going backwards. It's not that I don't like working on it -- it's usually a lot of fun. But when my friends are cranking out six issues to my one, it's hard not to feel a little left behind.

To mix things up a bit, I've decided to start a second comic once this issue is finished -- something I can work on in the mornings before hunkering down for an afternoon of hardcore foliage-drawing. This probably sounds kind of insane, so let me explain. This one's going to be different:
  • Stylistically simpler and lower-resolution, focusing on value and proportion instead of linework
  • Rough enough to finish a page in a few hours
  • Black and white
  • A much higher panel count, with an emphasis on storytelling
  • Digital primary distribution method, with print to follow
That last point is the big mystery right now, and I know it's the riddle everybody's trying to solve. "Digital distribution" can mean so many things these days -- ad-supported web comic? How about mobile devices? What about the iPad and Kindle? And then there's Longbox. Is there a format or aspect ratio that is most adaptable to a wide range of displays? Is it even a good idea to try for a flexible layout? What the heck am I even talking about?

Imagine you wanted to get as many eyeballs on your work as possible, and you weren't encumbered by the need for an advance. What would you do? Discouragingly, there don't seem to be too many success stories in the world of English language dramatic webcomics. Some humor strips are doing well, of course, but is anybody paying the bills with a non-funny webcomic?

The Koreans are having a lot of success with serious online comics (this one, like several others by the same author, was turned into a film). Korean web comics are very meaty, with long, vertically-arranged chapters that come out on a regular schedule. The most popular artists are sponsored by the gigantic portal sites that host them. Webcomics are not only sustainable, they're very big business in Korea. One interesting aspect of this system is that there's no formal barrier between amateur and professional submissions -- anybody can upload a comic to Daum (Daum's sort of the Korean Yahoo, Naver is Google, and Google, ironically, is Bing). As artists attract readers, they increase their chances of being selected as a sponsored artist.  It's such a great setup that a case could probably be made for translating your comic into Korean just to get a crack at all those millions of readers. As you might imagine, it's a pretty competitive space, and foreign comics don't have the best track record in Korea. But who knows? You might be the first!

Anyway, I'm keeping an eye on the iPad. If the install base gets big enough, the iBooks store could be the golden ticket. Other than that, I don't even know what questions I should be asking. It'll be a couple of months before I break ground on the new project, so I'll be in info-gathering mode until then. Hopefully some smart people will drop some knowledge-bombs on the comments section.

Ah, one last thing. I replaced the clunky left-toolbar page previews with a slick Flash-based thingy. Here's another link to the same preview:

It's all shiny and Apple-y. If you want to do this with your artwork, all you have to do is upload a .pdf to Issuu, and voila!