Improvising My Way To Comics - A Retrospective
Aug 6, 2022, 8:54:49 PM
I wanted to impart my thoughts on the last 7 months of making comics. So if you’re someone who’s thinking that making webtoons or comics sounds like a fun idea and you’re just on the cusp of getting started, then you might find this of interest.
This article will be a retrospective about the below. Not so much what they are about -- you should know what they are, since you read 'em, right? It's more about, how I made them and if the process any good.
The Creative Point of View
I too hope to oneday make it big. I realize I can’t control that though. I know the best way to make that happen might be to draw and post often and post to a cadre of social media spaces in the hopes that someone, somewhere will see it and re-share it. Then like a chain-reaction it gets shared and shared again exploding across the Internet. And I know that there is a very, very small chance of that happening.
Posting across a bevy of social media sites burned me out in the first place. There’s so much emphasis on needing to get heard and seen. I did everything. I posted on Instagram and tagged with 30 hashtags. I liked, commented, and shared work that I liked. I tweeted as much as I could. But, I’m not a shitposter or a meme master. I don’t jump on the latest social media trend. I’m not quick like that. Getting heard on social media (going viral) has a component of chance to it, and there is that saying, you miss 100% of the chances you don’t take. So you keep tweeting and posting. You make better content in order to be heard. You keep liking, retweeting, resharing, commenting, hashtagging until you’re in the vortex of social media and you can’t find your way out.
So, I turned it off at the end of 2020. I quit social media. I logged out of Twitter, Instagram, and Tiktok. Ironically the one social media I wanted out of, Facebook, I kept, since I know the people on my feed. Everything else was meant to grow my “fanbase.”
The way I see it, the primary things in my life are to take care of myself and to work my job. Because I do these things, I can afford time to enjoy my passions and hobbies such as making art, drawing comics, and all the other fun stuff. I don’t get those things without the first two. The social media… is an inbetween thing, and in the grand scheme of it, not important. It’s even made more so by the fact that you’re producing content so someone else can monetize you to help their underlying bottomline and stock price.
Having backed away from all of that audience-building stuff and de-prioritizing it, I went back to what mattered: making what I wanted.
What Went Well
No Buffer, No Life
One of the things folks in webcomics talk about is having a buffer. That is a backlog of unposted comics that they could post in a pinch if there’s an off-week (life gets busy sometimes). I always liked the idea myself, except when I had a buffer, of say, four posts, that meant one thing:
I got four weeks off.
I would slack. The first week is fine, because you still have three more weeks of content, but as you let it slide, you find yourself staring down that fifth week with nothing. Sometimes to extend my "buffer" I'd cut a long comic in half to get an additional week of content. There's the angst of racing against a twindling set of unposted content and then the epiphany that you can only keep up. For every one you post, the only way to grow a surplus is to draw two comics a week. Maybe you can stay ahead, but not forever. In short it creates a lot of angst and presumed work.
I wanted to be engaged with my work, so for me, having a buffer was a bad idea.
So, I went without one. I haven’t had one since the beginning of this year and I’ve pretty much posted a new comic almost every week so far. And I’ve had off weeks. I’ve hung out with friends. I’ve moved even, and yet I posted anyway.
It's not all sunshine and rainbows to live without a buffer. Sometimes I do end up drawing late on Friday or most of the day Saturday -- you know, when I could be doing something else. But that's the commitment I made to myself: to make art and do it in the moment and more importantly (for me) to publish it on Saturday.
I publish every Saturday. I told myself if push came to shove, it could be stick figures and misspelled dialogue all the way through, but I've never gone that far. Nope, I care enough to try. Not every comic is my best work, but there's always next week and the one after that. By telling myself "I publish every Saturday" it forces me to have a deadline and some discipline. While I believe in the freedom of artistic creation, it can't be a science project, it can't and shouldn't take forever. Make it, share it, and move on. At least that's what I'm aiming for.
Improvising Your Way Out
I start a new comic on Monday morning. Not Sunday. I’m not religious (ironically), but I’m lazy and don’t want to do anything after the comic is published on Saturday. And it's the weekend, so, anything more is a no-go.
A lot of the comics are improvised week to week. Oh, I have a very general idea of where things are going at a 10,000 foot level and maybe a vague idea at the 30,000 foot level, but up close, it’s whatever comes to mind on Monday morning to drive the story forward.
I sketch loosely. Make word bubbles.
Did I mention I do this before work? I start around 8 AM — I don’t have to switch on my computer for work till about 9:30 AM. I have zero commute (right now) so it’s easy to sit down at my personal computer and do something for myself as the very first thing. Some folks choose exercise, and if I got up earlier I would choose that too, but I choose art. I’ll admit most mornings I don’t really get started till past 8:30 am. Maybe I might get a good 30 minutes of comic-making. Maybe 10.
That’s still more than zero. You’d be surprised at what you can get done in 10 minutes. Sometimes it’s placing some word bubbles. Maybe it’s sketching an expression. Forming a layout of some kind.
There’s a economy to storytelling that you need when you have limited resources, and I think you can see that in my comic. No backgrounds most of the time. No color. No paneling either. Sometimes the word bubbles continue without portraits. In one comic it was mostly text. Sometimes images are copied, pasted, and modified just a little. But it’s whatever I can improvise to service the story at that moment in time.
If you’ve been following the story and reading the blog posts, you might have noticed at one point it simply became a prose retelling of the comic.
I like writing. I might be terrible at it, but like everything, getting better takes practice.
For the longest time I kept comic making and writing fiction as separate projects. But, you can only do so many projects at once, and once I decided that This Mortal Coil was the one, it made it easier to merge both interests together.
If you’re wondering, most of the prose is written literally as I am putting the post together. I want to say “I give some more insight into the characters with the prose” but lets not kid ourselves here. I write it on the spot and it works it self out as I make it up. I’m a fast typer, so it’s easy to spit words, even they aren’t the best words. In the vein of “perfect is the enemy of the good/done” they’re the words that get the story/post done. For my comic writing, I often think of google’s search robot as my only audience. The idea of prose writing to acompany the comic was actually born out of wanting more SEO-able content to be found via search engines. Whether that works or not, I haven’t a clue, but it’s freed me from trying hard to find my words and to simply do it and lets me have both artforms when I create.
Ceating My Way to Comic Creation
I cheat. A lot.
I use 3D for some scenes — Blender and Clip Studio both are great for this. I use photographs of myself and trace over them for expressions or hand gestures. Or if I’m too lazy to import the photo from my phone to literally trace over it, I use it as direct reference and draw what I see.
Sometimes, I’m so lazy, instead of tracing, I’ll draw it outright.
I also joke way too much about this “cheating” than I should. What I do is in the service of telling the story and I'm working smarter, not harder. Or at least I'm trying. Making art whether it's with shortcuts or not still takes time, there's no way around it.
And, despite my shortcuts and shortcomings there has to be some understanding of anatomy, perspective, cloth folding, etc. All the books I read, all the years of practice I did, it still matters. Obviously (to me), I don’t look or dress like my characters. I know no backwards-headed demons. I don’t live in Japan, so my ability to cheat can only go so far. These skills are things I spent years learning and practicing. The digital tools and photo reference help me get to what I want faster. After all, when you've only got 30 minutes, you're gonna have to work a little different.
I’m not saying, plagarize. That’s different. Definitely don’t do that, but a photo of yourself making an expression to get the feeling you want, the way you want it. Do that.
Use 3D to make a composition and screenshot it to trace over and flesh out. Yes, totally.
These cheats aren't easy. They require a certain level of expertise with software (not much mind you -- I learned a great deal off of Youtube and pushing buttons and pounding my head against the keyboard in frustration). The investment of time is worth it to help me express more than I can.
I got to introduce some new characters! I’ve been sitting on characters for years now because the pacing of This Mortal Coil is slow. So I’m excited about that. I have a lot of new scenarios and concepts I’d like to fold into Magical Girl Kamiko.
Years ago when I dreamt up these ideas they weren’t connected directly to anything specific story-wise. The characters, the plot points, they’d be cool to have one day. So being able to improvise, I’m finding I can take this trove of ideas and give them life. Sure, it’s not how I thought it would go. The ideas are remixed, but I’m doing it, and that’s exciting, and that’s keeping me going.
So yeah, the giant eyeball, the firebird girl. Yes they’re characters I cooked up close to a decade ago, maybe more.
There are some unintended consequences which were flash-in-the-pan delights while I worked on the comic. For instance, the giant eyeball is another god from This Mortal Coil. What's interesting to me is that the eyeball never had a voice. In my worldbuilding the eyeball always had a looming presence. It wasn't until I introduced the character and gave her life that a voice popped to mind. That voice and style of speech came from another character of mine and I remixed them together into what you see in the comic. That gave rise to new ideas I never thought of. New questions to answer and more direction for what's to come after.
There’s some more I’d like to bring back to Magical Girl Kamiko as well to further tie this epoch of Kamiko’s life together with the previous story. I look forward to this as well.
Posting to the Website
It isn’t too bad to update the site. I’m always glad I changed over from Wordpress. Sure, there’s features missing, like being able to schedule posts, but posting the moment its done feels more immediate, and I like that.
What Went Wrong and Needs Improvement
The Downside of Improvising
I’ve always been a pant-ser. That is, I write at the seat-of-my-pants. I make it up. Kinda, like this whole retrospective. It's made up of long standing thoughts I've had about comic creation and my artistic process, but it's also written and re-written on the spot. It’s fun, but also a pain in the butt when it comes to editing. I have notecarded out stories in the past and going through making sure scenes fit the moment, but notecarding and writing are too different things for me. As soon as I start writing, those notecards become mere suggestions and not a definitive roadmap to completion. I don’t write to market. I don’t follow a formula. I'm bad at it. I’m off-script, even though I wrote that script.
But… making it up on the spot is fun. Having flash-in-the-pan ideas are cool. Having a limited time and the attitude of going-with-it to get something done, it’s great.
I don't think I can improve to get better at following my own notes. I've tried. Lord, how I have tried.
I did worldbuilding in the past. It was fun in its own right, but it didn’t get a work done. It’s mostly a bunch of notes that nobody will ever see. It is why it’s exciting to be drawing the firebird girl and the giant eyeball — now you get to see some of those wacky ideas.
The thing is, will any of that worldbuilding still apply? The characters are what I make of them in the moment, and ultimately, the characters are what, you, the reader makes of them. Eventually, I loose control to the characters and to the reader.
It’s hard to say what the longterm ramifications are. Am I writing myself into a corner? Is this really the right idea? Should I really introduce this character? Instead of trying to to become more rigid, I’m learning to let that go and fully embrace the insanity.
Sometimes Kamiko and Catherine are sexy, pin-up ladies.
Sometimes they’re cutesy chibis because I’m lazy to draw them sexy.
Sometimes the story is dark — not too dark.
Sometimes its a dumb joke.
Maybe, I’m still finding my style and I’m not there yet. Or maybe this is the style, because there were a bunch of 4-koma style comics that were all chibi and simple and this is the best mixture of sexy, cutesy, dark, and humorous.
I do realize that doing things week-to-week means that they’ll be inconsistent.
The high contrast is... back in style for me. I had done some pages last year with the high contrast style and it stuck. It works great especially when the story takes place at night. During the daytime though... I'll have to come up with something. But simplicity will be the prevailing factor in how the story looks going forward.
Also, on a more self-nitpicky note, I’ve noticed where I’ve screwed up continuity. The one that pops out the most is the shoe that Natsumi/Kamiko lost when she tossed by upside-down head. It was on one foot than the other. Then I decided to go with it as it was and not fix it.
I’m sure there’s other minor continuity issues. Remember that giant bird that roosted atop of the Gate of Daitokuin? Probably not. After a while, I didn't bother to draw it. While it added to the randomness of how Natsumi and Catherine saw the world, later it didn't service the immediate story -- that is fighting upside-down head.
Sometimes, because I don’t check back with the previous comic, the new one starts out with a different mindset and tone, but I find I can use the prose to make up for that. Now, whether the reader, reads the prose in conjunction with the images is another thing.
It’s Been A Long Time
I started this chapter at the end of December 2021. I finished it last week. It’s been seven months for one chapter. The chapter sizes are inconsistent, but that’s the price of improvising, I suppose. There was a lot to be done and said in this chapter — it is the big one (to me) where Natsumi and Catherine meet and team up.
In retrospect, I could have broke it up into smaller chapters, but I went with it and let it played out.
I don't know how to really iron this out in the future. It will be what it will be.
Embracing improv has been a huge boon for making art. Working smarter, not harder and get comics done without worrying about a buffer has been liberating. I'm looking forward to making more, but for now, some self-care.
As I said there's still a post for every Saturday. This is, this Saturday's post after all, a retrospective.
I hope it gave you some insight into my creative process and maybe there's some lessons to take away for your own creative projects.
Art's not a straight line after all. It's a continual process of making and learning. It's got pitfalls with burnout and imposter-syndrome. It's hard to say if any of this will be worth it. Will I get lucky with someone stumbling onto this cache of work or will it be a signal obscured by noise? Is there an audience for this? Some one will say that it's only a matter of time before lady luck shines on you (on me, even!). Ultimately, these are the shots I'm willing to take. They're the ones I know how to take.
Good luck on your artistic journey and in the very least, have a great weekend!