Monday, September 1, 2008


Click click click for huge privacy-shattering version!

This is where the magic happens!

I am easily the most ghetto comic artist I've met in Greece. I don't even have a proper drawing table. That's right, I draw hunched over a pad I place on my lap, sitting in that torn chair. It's a hilarious story, I'm sure I'm going to laugh my way to the hospital for back surgery when I'm 45.

Pay no attention to knives, they'll be explained later on. Let's treat this like a mid-90's FMV adventure game and just click on that toolbox hotspot right now.

(if you actually clicked there for real, I applaud your instincts!)

This is all the comic artist needs in my humble opinion. Let's see, we have an antique chess piece cardboard box that belonged to cartoonist dad for Karma boost. Rubber erasers (4). Mechanical plotting pencil and extra bits. Whiteout for erasing bad inking judgment. If you cannot see it, it never happened. Itty bitty nosed Faber Castel pigment markers. These are pretty much my sole tool when I do traditional comic work. Yes, every curvy, variable-width line in all the comics I've posted so far had been faked with a .01 pigment marker. That's just how my brain works. Or worked, as it were, since then I've bought the beauty next to it, a wonderful little Pentel Indian ink brush which serves me well. Also pictured are replacement inks for it since I go quite heavy duty on them. Last but not least, a screwdriver. Men are not men if they do not have tools, and I am a man, hence I have tools.

I will cover the digital end of making comics much later on. I am nowadays pretty much all digital. All of me, I live in cyberspace and I am made out of (50) bright Greek polygons and/or wireframe depending on the processing power of your 8-bit computer.

How I work is this. First I do nothing for a few days and wait for an idea to come. Surely, it does, usually when I am half-asleep or in the shower. The idea can be really simple, usually one line. Let's go with the very first comic, Babis. The idea was 'man is outmoded by creepy pursuers, they go after his uncle inexplicably instead'. Then without touching a paper yet, I try to exhaust in my mind the bits of interest that could be the dressing for this central idea. If I don't have about 4 or 5 of them, the idea then is thrown in the 'perhaps a three panel strip instead' pile and I wait around more for a better idea to come.

Oh wait, let's instead go with spaceman since I happen to have his doodles scanned already.

So when I think the idea is worth it, I brainstorm the jokes and make a little thumbnail of the page and divide it into strips/panels and try to work on the rhythm. This is pretty much how one looks like:

As you can see sometimes the panels don't end up even so some restructuring has to go on. Also pictured are doodles of the head of the protagonist. I was struggling with a coherent style at the beginning of making these as you can see.

Then comes the most important step I've found in making a humorous comic page: I tape this to the wall next to the computer and I just wait a few days. I look at it and the more I look at it the more I realize where the errors in pacing are. People might think I'm lazing around not doing my job in these couple of days but I am, I really am (lazy)!

After the minor corrections I pencil the page on a big A3 board on cheap printer paper (I never found use for glossy, expensive paper. I like seeing the grain in my inking, personally). Again, this gets taped to the wall and stared at for a day. The pencilling takes anything from 4 hours to 8 hours, depends how much work there is to it and how many errors and therefore backtracking, are included.

After a day, and probably rapidly approaching the end of the week's deadline, the inking starts. I don't have any examples of penciled but not inked work from that era for a very simple (ghetto) reason: I don't use a lightbox. I ink right on the pencils, and then I erase the pencils. Madness, heresy! Don't you even love your own work, Helm? I hear the cries. I do, but I'm not obsessive about it. I don't care to leave penciled pages since I never really planned to showcase the stages or sell them or anything. I believe the 'pencil page, then inked on lightbox' is mostly the result of the industry process of American Superhero comics where the two people are different. As an indie creator I don't see the reason to get a boner over my own pencils, so erased they are once inked over. I do have a lot of pencil only pages from when I started inking digitally, but nowadays I do even the pencils on the computer so there's not even much of that left. I will post a few examples later on in the blog's life anyway.

So, the inking. It's pretty much the least interesting creatively and most zen part of the process. I know what textures and effects I want to achieve most of the time so there's not much of me sitting around stumped going on. If I were a professional in America in the mid-80's I guess they'd hire me as an inker most of all, as I believe it to be easy and mechanical a process. It just takes a long time. About 6-8 hours depending on content. Most times I spread the inking out to two 4 hour segments over two days. The reason is simple: after about 4 hours of artistic work I find my brain turns to mush and I no longer am able to make sound artistic calls. As I said in inking not a lot are included, but then you go and try to improv ink a face you had left vague in the penciling stage and... the result really illustrates what I mean with 'brain mush'. Reach for the whiteout. Erase. If you can't see it, it never happened.

So optimally this whole process is done about a day before deadline. I then do the lettering, which I find boring and unrewarding work since most of the time the comment I get is either "why don't you use a computer to do the lettering? Sometimes I can't make out what you're saying" or "why do you use lowercase and not just ALL UPPERCASE LIKE I AM USED TO FROM READING COMICS WHEN I WAS 8 YEARS OLD. I FAIL TO SEE HOW THIS LOOKS LIKE THE CHARACTER IS SHOUTING ALL THE TIME". *sigh* I guess it's also underwhelming for me because I make a lot of spelling errors (even with spellchecker and whatnot) and it's very amateurish to see these go to print. Blame my editor for not uh, bothering to read my pages! Anyway, all spelling errors to these have been fixed for the greek paperback edition.

I then scan and digitally fix whatever I messed up in the inking stage. This is usually relatively painless and amped by the nearing-competition excitement. I then at last turn the page from grayscale to an one-bit bitmap. I do this by running Levels on the page and settling the left sensor to 136 and the right one to 138. Nice and clean, no grays left. I preview the page with auto-AntiAlias by photoshop at 33% zoom and if it all seems okay, I send it to the e-mail address of the editor. No need for personal contact, I don't even have to leave my home. Paper comes out, nobody reads my comics, repeat from the top!

So that's it! Do comment and tell me if you'd like to see more behind the scenes stuff on the blog later on (like how it is to draw completely digital on Cintiq and how it is to use a black cat under the table as a heater for my legs (pictured in the first one, if you pay close attention)!



HS said...

The way you work reminds me of the theory which claims that when you don't work on a project directly, subconscious processes take place while you're seemingly occupied with something else. Surely did I have suspicions but I would never imagine that you've been working in such a manner -the detail where you tape the piece of unfinished work next to the computer is a rather sweet idiosyncratic element of yours (such as the knives!)-

How did you get on with deadlines? Did you ever find yourself feeling tense and did you ever started drawing without having mentally formed an idea yet? How about these details you mentioned in the Geometry Girl (lack of vertical borders, selected black areas etc), do you plan them beforehand or they come during the process? In the end, I have a question about the inking, do you sense any difference in the texture now that you don't use pencils? Arg, I said this would be the last one but Helm, why did you put this post under "psychopathology"? =D

I was wondering how come you took a picture of your place without including any cat in the photo, when I read your last paragraph. I would swear that this black thing which appears to be a cat, was some kind of cloth thrown down there! ^_^

Stay creative! (to quote Johnny)

Helm said...

Deadlines... as long as I felt good I had no problem meeting weekly deadlines. Once I started getting depressed for real I surprisingly at first kept my output regular for a few months. At some point I got really tired with everything though and for about 2-3 weekly deadlines I turned in a reprint of some earlier comics I've done. For a continual run of 9 months or so I believe 3 weeks of lapses were alright. I certainly don't kick myself over it.

What I do regret is when I had no ideas and were all 'don't sweat it, it'll come' and suddenly it's the last two days before deadline and I rush to pencil and ink something presentable in that timeframe. I managed, but boy does it make you not want to draw any more comics, ever to be pressured like that.

I've never started a comic without having an idea for it (24 hour comics excluded). The way a comic page is divided in the beginning really doesn't allow to just let your subconscious take over and still have the end result be something readable. What, will you say in the beginning 'I don't know what will happen in this panel, but it'll be large half-page panel. And here three short ones!'. You can't really improvise structure, heh. You can improvise content, but structure is a whole different thing. Well, not unless you're Moebius or someone I decidedly can't even touch, talent-wise.

About inking, the biggest difference is that it's much more difficult to draw round shapes on the Cintiq. Somehow that ability doesn't translate well from paper to digital. Otherwise I can do all I could on paper and more.

I think the psychopathology tag is pretty self-explainable!!

Anonymous said...

at first sight your comics are pretty hard to get into but these stories about whats going on behind the scenes make me want to give them a chance. good job!!

Helm said...

I realize that the latest one is a bit... vague but there's a few lighter ones here and there. From here on end things get decidedly more grim though, so I'm glad you're prepared to give them a chance!

KayoNihilist said...

Grreetings Helm!
Congratulations on your blog.

One question.
Which one is that book being used as a mousepad?
The bible? Das Kapital?
Thank you for your time.
p.s. Sweet Jacket, i cannot see what's underneath the Fates Warning logo though!

Helm said...

Thank you, Kayonihilist.

Marxist Ethics is under the mouse. It's not a statement of any sort it's just a big fat book with a single-colored durable (not red) back cover so the mouse likes it.

It reads 'Lordian Guard: True Medieval Epic Metal' under Fates Warning. Generally all the questions you were afraid to ask about the picture will be answered soon enough!!