Back to the grind

The last few weeks have been filled with ‘life’ things, so ‘comic’ things have had to take a back seat. It’s been pretty hard to break back in.

Since mid-October I’ve been doing a lot less art and comics work. Preparing for MCM (and then tabling at it) took up a lot of the latter half of October, and since November started I’ve had a ton of stuff to sort out, not least my heating system falling apart on the cusp of winter leading to me having to quickly get the whole thing replaced. Picking up a pencil has been hard enough, let alone trying to find time and space to actually do anything with it.

This week I finally got back on the horse (luckily I didn’t choose to draw it as well; that may have broken me). I actually found it a lot harder to do that than I expected. I’ve only had a few weeks away from it all, but I came back to things feeling completely unable to do anything. I was picking up half-finished pages of Heads! and feeling like I wasn’t able to create anything up to that standard. I thought I’d try something different, but all the ideas I had seemed even harder to achieve. Even doodling stuff was futile; I found myself making pointless, low quality images which made me feel even more inadequate.
One of the things that got me was timing. I realised that I wasn’t getting to draw at the times I wanted to draw. Sadly, life doesn’t allow us all to fully command when and where we do what, but I decided to try and pick moments rather than seize moments. I am a long distance runner and am well aware of how defeating it can be to force yourself out to do a long training run when the timing isn’t right. However, I thought about what was good about the bad runs. I remembered that if I felt like I was running for the sake of running while I felt low or tired it was a useless run. I would be more tired afterwards, wouldn’t have achieved anything other than sweat patches and would feel like I was further away from what I was aiming for than when I started. However, if I set out on a run with the intention of just enjoying it no matter how well I did, I found I ran better than I expected and, in some cases, actually did a decent time or distance.

The main way I managed to do this in running was not wearing a watch. I usually time my runs so that I know how well the training is going (particularly if I’m training for a race). But without a watch to keep time I would only be able to judge how well I was doing by how I felt. Putting down the one thing that I was rating myself against gave me back the freedom to just enjoy it for the sake of it. But how could I apply this to drawing comics?

I thought about what I most wanted to draw. Right now, I want to get the third issue of Heads! finished off (I’m just over halfway through). That felt like the thing that would please me most. Then I thought about what was unenjoyable about drawing it. I had a pang of discomfort as I realised that my desire to have the whole thing finished by the end of November was bugging me. A lot. It made me understand that my self-imposed deadline was looming and that I couldn’t achieve it. That made the whole thing feel not just difficult, but a little bit pointless.

So I let it go.

The deadline was there to keep me motivated (see my previous blog for more details on that). If I was working for a publisher on a contract and the deadline was ‘real’ I would have been working in a very different way from the start. So I let it go. I accepted that it is more important for me (and for my readers) that the finished issue is of the best quality work I can produce, even if it takes a bit longer than planned.

Unburdened, I felt able to draw again. The resulting first page I completed was a joy to create and turned out to be much more intricate than I ever expected, so it will really soar in the new issue. I’m not going to have it all done by the end of the month, but you know, it’ll be worth the wait.

It’s not all bollocks!

The last week or so has been a bit of a creative non-starter for me. I feel like I’ve hit a bit of a block on Heads! and a few other things have dragged me down further in relation to it. But I’ve found a few ways of getting myself out of that frame of mind and back in the creative saddle.

I’m currently working on issue three of Heads! ahead of the second issue being released at the start of 2019. I was very excited about this particular issue, as it’s where the story expands, more characters are introduced and the key players really start to come into their own. But designing a new character and also a building whose appearance is essential to the plot (trust me…) turned out to be a taller order than I expected. It left me feeling a under confident in a lot of the artwork I was producing and as a result I lost all faith in everything I’d done with the issue. By this point I’d made significant progress with 11 pages of a 26 page comic. The thought of scrapping it all and starting again was about as desirable as the prospect of continuing with it as it was – in short, I was stuck where I was.

Luckily, I am not shy about showing things off, even if I’m not very happy with them. I appreciate that it can be hard to put your work out there and particularly to ask for criticism and advice. But rather than put things out publicly and ask for help, I chose my audience. I showed pages to my long suffering other half, who puts up with a hell of a lot of diva tantrums from me in general. She’s really good at pointing out if something isn’t working, and since she isn’t an artist she is a really good gauge for whether a reader will be as disappointed in a page as I may feel about. I went to my incredible artist friend Heather Chapman. We always show each other pieces of our work we love / hate and often illustrate together. Heather gave me some suggestions and considerations, while appreciating my gut feeling as an artist. I then showed my writer friend Craig Jex. He’s worked on comics projects with me and is also a filmmaker, so he’s a creative but not an illustrator and therefore was able to look at it all from a professional point of view but also as a reader.

I got a number of things from choosing these people.

  1. All three are nice people and would be truthful with me if they thought I had drawn something that wasn’t up to my usual standard.
  2. They all had different ideas for how I should approach a change. These ranged from changing the composition of an image to pointing out how the placement of a speech bubble could cover a non-essential detail that wasn’t quite right.
  3. They all pointed out the things they liked about the work I showed them as well as the things that could be improved.

It’s that last point that made the most difference, and is the thing I’d say is less likely to happen in a public arena. I got the criticism I needed but was buoyed up by hearing that the vast majority of what I had created was hitting the mark – or as Craig put it “You always pick something you don’t like and assume the whole issue is all bollocks. It’s not all bollocks!”

This really helped me move on with the issue. One particular page needed a re-think and having a bit of confidence back allowed me to experiment with some ideas and find a composition which is so much better. I know some people will think my choice of critics was too safe, but these people also know what I care about in my work. There’s loads of areas that my work could improve in, some of which I actively try to get better at and some of which I really don’t consider to be of importance. The people close to me know that I don’t want my work to look more like Jim Lee or J Scott Campbell, they know I don’t care about making things more hyper-realistic and that I find occasional continuity errors to be quite amusing things to definitely keep in. So, rather than point out lots of things like that, or looking for faults for the sake of it, they looked to see if the pages I showed them looked like good quality Rik Jackson comics pages, and they told me the good and the bad things that I needed to hear.

Show it to a kid – Part 2: Practical improvements

I got a little side-tracked last week with the pre-order launch for Heads! so didn’t get round to finishing these follow up examples ready. As part two of this blog piece I wanted to give a few more examples of how I have tested my visual storytelling techniques and made changes to my comics accordingly. My eleven year old son is really good at helping me with this – kids in general are, and I explain more about this in the previous blog. Here are a couple more pages he’s ‘read’ and how his interpretation has led to improved panels.

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This is a page from Heads! where I wanted to use the imagery of changing gears in a car to represent part of the plot accelerating. The previous page has fewer, larger panels and shows the characters casually talking in the moving car. When I showed my son the scene, he said the first page was people talking about something important in a car. He reached this page, hesitated and then said that ‘everything sped up’. The rest of the pages in the scene felt more urgent to him after that, which was what I’d hoped the result would be.

Get a copy of Heads! to see for yourself.

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In this page from Rock In Purgatory, a snow leopard creeps through a las Vegas hotel to find its way to a concert stage before it attacks. The text and dialogue bare no relation to this, which I intended in order to draw less attention to it and make it feel more surprising. In the original layout for the page I had not referenced the snow leopard as much. When my son read the strip, he felt that the snow leopard seemed to come out of nowhere – not in a sinister way, but in a nonsensical one! The preceding page ends with a frame of the snow leopard in a cage with the lock open, which I reminded him of. Though it helped him feel more content with the strip, I realised that I wouldn’t be there to point this out to every reader. If my son was missing the point, likely most readers will. So, I added the snow leopard in just a little bit more and showed his journey through the hotel. The final page felt concise but accurate, and my son thought the silhouette of the beast added suspense – which suited me just fine.

Get a copy of Rock In Purgatory to see for yourself.

As we all know, proof reading a final piece is so valuable. I’ve learned that a visual storytelling proof read of a comic can be of massive benefit, and kids are great to do this with. Plus, they are usually a bit more blunt than friends or family may be, which is exactly what we need to make us, as comic creators, realise that something isn’t working and to find a way to make it better.

Had good experiences like this yourself? Let me know in the comments below.

Show it to a kid – Part 1: Testing visual storytelling

My son and I started developing a comic idea this week. We chuck ideas around all the time and sometimes choose to do something with one if it sticks with us. In this case, I’d seen a tweet from The Phoenix asking for writer and artist submissions. We thought we’d have a go at turning our fun little idea into something a bit meatier and get a submission over to them. 

This got me thinking about how much of an important a part of my comics creation process my son is. Not only is he full of good ideas, he’s a great sounding board for whether things are working well in respect of visual storytelling. Comics is a visual medium so you need to have your visual storytelling nailed down. Pages need to be interesting to look at, flow effortlessly and not make the reader have to ‘think’ too hard about it. The layout and presentation of the art shouldn’t dilute what’s going on with the story. Being able to create a sequence of images that tell the story at the right pace and over an acceptable number of pages is no mean feat. And testing the success of this is where my son comes in.

As often as possible, I show him thumbnails, page layouts or completed pages (yes, I know some of my work is not suitable for kids – I make sure whatever he sees and reads is appropriate), none of which have any text on them. I ask him to tell me what thinks is going on in each panel, and to tell me what the scene or page he’s just ‘read’ was generally all about. I ask him how some parts make him feel, though he often articulates this anyway. It’s so interesting and often makes me rethink a page, or brings up a point I hadn’t considered. My son is eleven years old – if he can’t ‘read’ a silent page, it probably isn’t working.

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Here’s my Toad of Toad Hall silent comic from last year. I gave this to my son and he was able to read the scene. He found humour in the ever changing costumes and understood the pleading urgency of Toad at the start. At the end, he told me that Toad was defiant, but ended up going along with the final plan, which he assumed would lead to him feeling angry with himself later on.

The point of this exercise is to see if the visual storytelling is hitting the right notes. It’s not an exact science – there are obviously some layouts and images that do not adhere to a standard storytelling process, or that need to be more abstract and subversive to suit the script. But generally, if I want to know whether a sequence has the right beats in it and moves the reader along with the story, it really helps.

I’ll put some examples of this up in a new blog post next week. However, for a quick reference on visual story telling I would suggest you all have a look at Bone by Jeff Smith and The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. If you look at Bone without reading the text you can see so much going on in the art. Humour and peril are well portrayed by the light and shadows in the panels, and characters feelings are presented in subtle hand gestures as well as body language and facial expressions. The Snowman is a completely silent book, yet Raymond Briggs gives us something that has so much to ‘read’. I remember my dad and I read this book a lot when I was a kid, and we he would get me to tell me what is going on in each panel. I do the same with my kids now too, and find that this is a book which takes a long time for us to read together due to the amount of narrative and emotion that can be interpreted from the art.

Check back next week for the second part of this blog, where I’ll break down some of my comic pages from Heads! with the help of my son’s interpretations.

A (Un)fortunate Tale of art direction

The new Unfortunate Tales script landed in my inbox at the weekend. For those that don’t already know about it, Unfortunate Tales is a webcomic published on the Attack From Planet B website. It’s written by AFPB main man Ken Wynne and I do the art for it. Each strip riffs off of a different horror movie concept, with each strip linking subversively to the next. This edition takes on Return Of The Living Dead, having jumped from a reference in the previous Street Trash inspired strip.
Other than being a great little strip to work on, it’s an excellent opportunity try out new things. Ken’s scripts are particularly detailed for such short pieces and it forces me to very quickly learn how to draw things I haven’t drawn before or tackle compositions that I wouldn’t have come up with myself. This script presented a compositional problem, so for the first time in this working relationship I needed to negotiate how we produce it.

Ken’s original script describes a front facing one point perspective layout. The direction makes sure all the details are captured, but when it came to drawing this I found the camera angle to be very restrictive. Unfortunate Tales is exclusively produced with square panels. The layout Ken described called for a focal character at the front standing with legs apart so that we can see characters visible in the mid-ground. There is then a background layer with a suggestion of activity. In a wider panel, this may have been good, but we can’t change the panel shape. If I could crop to just knees down on the foreground character we could see more detail, but it is essential that we see all of the foreground character in full. So I was limited to roughly this layout:

I decided to try out a few different variants and eventually settled on tracking the camera around to the right, keeping the foreground character in full and in front of the panel, but now off to the left. The mid-ground character remain in the mid-ground, but I can come closer to them, showing more detail. And the activity in the background now appears directly behind them, adding a bit more urgency to their predicament:

I pitched this to Ken to get his take on this and he appreciated what I’d done. Once he saw the two compared to each other he felt that the side angle helped to show off more of what he wanted in the strip. So we went with this layout, and I am now working up the pencils for it. The last time I had to negotiate on scripts and layouts with a writer was when I drew Brutal Bombshells to Craig Jex’s scripts. It can be a delicate process, and sometimes it’s hard to tell a writer that what they’ve written doesn’t quite work. It comes down to not just respecting each other’s particular skill, but also respecting the fact that sometimes an objective eye on something can really help to make something better.

Interview with Rock Your Life

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The awesome people over at Greek rock and metal website Rock Your Life contacted me for a chat about Rock In Purgatory. It was a great little interview and I really enjoyed talking about how create comics. If you can read Greek then go check out the interview on their website. For those of you who don’t read Greek, here’s an English version of the full interview.

How did you get started as a comic artist and why?
I have been an illustrator for a few years now, mainly working in comic book style, and had always wanted to get into making actual comics. My problem was that I wasn’t having story ideas that I thought were good enough. My friend Craig Jex (horror script writer and author of the short horror collection Grave Tales) wanted a new type of script project to work on, so we decided to do something together. I had been drawing a lot of gruesome pinup girls images for fun, and we struck upon the idea of giving each girl a murderous back story and creating comic strips about them. This soon became the basis for my debut comic Brutal Bombshells, which Craig wrote and I drew. It was so much fun to create and was the stepping stone I had been looking for to getting myself into comics.

Did you draw your own comics as a kid? At what age did you realize you had a gift for drawing?
I’ve been a comics fan since I was a kid. I used to collect the original Transformers and He-Man comics in the 80’s and then moved onto Batman and Green Lantern as a teenager. I used to draw my favourite characters and attempted my own fan-art versions of short stories based on them. In fact, I created a Batman influenced character to produce my final art exam piece at school.

But it wasn’t until recent years that I really concentrated on illustration and putting my work out there. I guess, as an artist of any kind, you are always your biggest critic, but I decided to just take the plunge and book myself onto some art fairs and conventions. So I suppose I never really considered I had a gift for drawing, more that I challenged the world to say that I didn’t!

Do you remember what your first piece of artwork was?
The first pieces I would consider ‘artwork’ rather than just drawing stuff, was my first proper oil painting. I was a probably about 11 and my dad, who is a painter and a drummer, gave me his old mahogany paint palette when I showed an interest in oil painting. It was a very special thing to be given, not only was it my dad’s, it was an antique, so carried a lot of history. I made me feel like I should take my painting seriously and that certainly showed with a lot of the landscapes and wildlife paintings I did. It’s a far cry from what I do now, but I know my parents still have those old paintings of mine, and that makes me very proud of them.

How did the idea for the deaths of Rock Stars come up?
Ages ago I remember reading a music magazine which had a short comic strip telling the story of Cliff Burton from Metallica’s tragic death. I wasn’t entirely sure how to take it, and I actually felt it was in poor taste despite being respectful to Cliff. The idea stuck with me, and when I was thinking about a follow up to Brutal Bombshells, it came to mind again. When I thought about the amount of urban legends of excess and mayhem that certain bands are said to have got up to, it was very easy to start coming up with slapstick, comedy ideas for how it all could go wrong. So I took cliches and tropes that are well know when someone says ‘rock star’ to you and made them as extreme as possible. The results included a band raising the devil only for the devil to kill them all, hotel rooms being trashed without personal safety being considered, a lothario singer who sleeps with the wrong groupie and a guitarist whose blood vomitting theatrics turn out to be a real internal hemorrhage.

Have you ever thought to transfer real rock stars’ death to the paper?
Not from a biographic point of view, no. The Cliff Burton comic I mentioned didn’t feel right to me, and I wouldn’t want to document the end of a person’s life in such a way. However, I do think it would be hilarious to produce a fictional comic story about a real band! It would be great to work with one of my favourite bands to create a comic about one of them dying a ridiculous death. Dillinger Escape Plan would be good, given their onstage antics. Actually, an entire Andrew WK comic would be amazing! He seems up for stuff like that…maybe I’ll ask him to collaborate on something!

From what I read you have some new comics in the works. Can you give me more details? Will they relate to the world of music?
I have too many comic book ideas, so I have to be careful about what I say I’m working on! Right now I’m preparing Rock In Purgatory for a printed collection, but I’m up for continuing the Rock In Purgatory series beyond this. I have also been planning a sci-fi private detective comic for a while now. It’s called Heads! and is going to have a bit of a Dick Tracy feel but mixed with stuff like Eerie Indiana, Mars Attacks and The X-Files. Originally, I was going to have all of that start out fresh. But considering the amount of characters I have created in Rock In Purgatory, I decided to have a music theme running through it so I can move some of those characters over and do more with them. So HEADZ will have plenty of rock music inspired scenes and storylines too.

Since you combine metal/rock music with comics I would like to know what you think about Dethklok and what you think about real music and comic bands like Gorrilaz.
To be honest, I don’t really know much about Dethklok. A friend mentioned it to me about six months ago and, though it looks fun, it didn’t really hold my interest. However, Gorrilaz, though musically not my thing, was a concept I really liked. There have been some really clever performance pieces from them. The fact that they always make the characters 100% the band is admirable, as I imagine that must be hard to sustain for so long.

I’m probably more influenced by other metal / comics cross overs. Alice Cooper did loads in the 90’s (some better than others) and the recent Kiss series by Dynamite Comics has been worth a read. There’s also a Gwar comic out which I’ve yet to read, but it’s definitely on my pull list.

How easy is for someone who designs comics to make a living only from this?
Easy answer – it isn’t! I would love to be doing this as my only line of work, but sadly it’s not the case. If you can get the attention of a publisher then you are certainly in with a better chance, but even that could be short lived. On the indie comics circuit it can be hard to make much money at all, so you really have to be doing it for the love of creating comics and telling stories. That’s not to say it’s impossible to get somewhere. I know people on the small press scene, like Matt Garvey and Dan Butcher, who do very well and are well respected. There’s also success stories like Chris Wildgoose, who was doing amazing indie work for years and has recently been picked up by DC to illustrate Batgirl. So it can happen. It’s the same as being in a band, I guess. I’m a guitarist and vocalist and have played in bands for years. I’ve had various levels of success, but at the end of the day it’s a combination of doing something that gets you noticed but the right people at the right time. It’s all about putting yourself out there – nobody is going to notice you if you aren’t out there showing off what you can do.

Tell us a bit about your creative process while creating a comic.
With Rock In Purgatory, I create each story using my own version of the Marvel Method. It’s a style that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby used to use, whereby Stan would come up with the concept for an issue of a comic – just the important bits of the story and the type of scenes it should include. Jack would then draw the pages based on his interpretation, and Stan would then write his final script to fit Jack’ art, using that as inspiration for other little nuances of the story. I work alone on Rock In Purgatory, so it’s a little different. I’ll come up with the plan for the story and draw out the panels for it. I’ll then come back to it a few weeks later and see how the art makes me feel. That gives me fresh inspiration to write the script.

I also work on a huge scale for the artwork. Each panel is drawn on an individual A4 sheet (21x29cm). I decided to do this for two reasons. Firstly, it allows me to be more detailed when I want to be, which is particularly useful when doing crowd scenes (Rock In Purgatory has a lot of those!) and getting in detail on stage sets. It also meant I could carry panels around and work anywhere. I actually drew the majority of Rock In Purgatory in my local library and in my favourite coffee house. The downside is when it comes to colouring, which can take ages. Apart from a few attempts at some digital colouring on backgrounds, Rock In Purgatory is drawn and coloured by hand, so the large scale can slow me down. But there’s something quite special about laying panels out on the floor to make up pages and see it in all its massive glory!

Read Rock In Purgatory for FREE now!

Anatomy of a page: Rock In Purgatory

 

I have been blazing away through Rock In Purgatory page creation lately. This comic has been so good for my artistic development. It not only forces me to try new compositions and draw things in a way I had not before, it has also opened up opportunities for me to try out new styles and techniques. I though it was about time I wrote another ‘how I did it’ style post to show one of the many ways I have been creating this comic.

First up, I thought I would go with a more traditional page than some of the ones I have previously done. Up until recently, all of Rock In Purgatory has been drawn as individual frames, each on an A4 sheet, edited together digitally. However, as I started to venture into having a few two and four page strips, I quickly realised that going back to drawing a whole page as one piece was going to be the best way forward.

Why the change?
On the one page strips, I have to convey a lot in a short time. As I have chosen to stick rigidly to presenting every strip within a 9-panel page layout, I end up with a maximum of seven panels to tell the whole story. With longer strips, I have the chance to add more depth or slow the pace. This often means I end up with some more incidental panels than usual. Though drawing these each as A4 would be fun, it would take ages, and the space I would have to play with would mean I would add far too much detail. Going back to a single A3 sheet for each page limits me a little. I can concentrate on the important details and also speed through the page.

The photos above show the progress of a new piece I am working on. Once I have thumbnailed the layout of the page, I get it marked up ready to start drawing. I keep it nice and loose to start with, working the shapes and action lines into place so that I have a nice solid foundation for the art.

Next, I tighten the pencils up a bit. I have recently pretty much relinquished all use of my lightbox and have opted to ink directly onto the same page that I have been pencilling. Personally, I have found this not only speeds things up but also leads to a better final piece. I used to procrastonate over the pencils so much and ended up making them as perfect as possible. When I came to ink them on the lightbox, I was never as happy with the inks as I was with the pencils. Now, I get as far as rough pencils and then make a lot of decisions for each panel at the ink stage. As you can see from the final image above, I am able to get a great final page that I am really happy with using this method. This is the first page from my first four page Rock In Purgatory strip.

Since you have read this far into this post, I thought I would treat you all to a further sneak peak into this strip. Here’s a character design sketch for a member of Vortex Face…see if you can guess why they named the band that….

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How I did it: Paper doll commission

Hotties Vintage owner Trica booked me for a commission recently. She wanted a plus size paper doll piece with a vintage theme for the launch of her new plus size clothing and accessories boutique. Obviously, I was all over it!

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I started out by skecthing the model. I did this directly onto a piece of A3 Bristol board. She started out nude and bald. The intention had always been to give her some underwear, but I spent quite a while deliberating over whether she should have hair. Since I was going to be adding hair pieces, leaving her bald would give me more freedom. However, I did not think she looked in keeping with the vintage pinup look without hair, so I sketched in a short style for her.

Once I was happy that she was pencilled well enough, I threw her onto my lightbox and started to roughly sketch outfit ideas onto marker pager using pigment liners. I kept the outfit sketches quite sparse and did more than I could possibly fit on one A3 page. This left me with a load of options for the final composition. There were a couple of items I planned to definitely include – like the red wiggle dress – but there were also plenty of things that I was willing to experiment with. I swapped the pages over on the lightbox, so now I could move the black line outfit sketches around underneath the Bristol board. I quickly pencilled in the items I had decided I would include, leaving space between each, not just for the composition, but also to add foldable tabs.

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By this point, I had rough pencils for the whole piece. I tightened a few parts up so that I did not lose track of details, and then got stuck in with inks. I like to get to inking quite quickly, as I find it stops me procrastinating over the piece. I started with the model. She was the focus of this piece and the part which I had definite ideas for how she should look. The outlines for the outfits came next, before I added and adjusted the details on each item of clothing.

Lastly, the colours went in. I used ProMarkers for this piece. They are great for getting the bold tones and contours that really helped set off the luxurious curves of the model and make the clothes pop right out at you. I left it for a night before going back over the whole piece to make a few minor tweaks and changes to give it the sumptuous look it has, before getting it swiftly in the post to Tricia in time for her boutique launch.

I am always up for doing more commissions. If you would like your own piece of custom art by me, get in touch with me by email at rik.rsj@gmail.com, or tweet me @gojacksongo.