#56–manga meets a herd of cows

Hopelessly Lost, But Making Good Time # 56

Manga Meets a Herd of Cows

©2005, 2012 Pam Bliss

Manga (Japanese comics) are different from the US comics. They read “backwards” from Western books or comics.  Manga pages are smaller than the pages of most US and European comics.  And manga artists draw somewhat differently than either the “bigfoot” style of US  humor comic strips or the competing “realistic” (independent /slice of life )  or “hyper- realistic” (mainstream/superhero) styles common in US comics.  But once those obvious differences are pushed away, the first thing one notices about shoujo manga is the wild freedom the artists display in dealing with both the comics page and the problems of storytelling.  They seem to be dedicated to the goal of blowing away all the rules that Western cartoonists learn at the knees of their mentors, and which we (and I include myself in this) regard as sacred cows.

Cow #1 Consistency in character design and art style:  We’re taught to design our characters carefully so that those who appear often in the same panel will always be easy to tell apart.  Then we are told to practice drawing them, over and over, so they will always look the same.  This consistency, we are taught, is essential to both the ability of readers to follow the plot and to the voluntary suspension of disbelief.  At the very least, when a character appears with a radically different appearance it is a clue to either a plot point (the character is in disguise, for example) or a change in setting, and often tone, (the character is in a dream, an alternate universe, or so on.)

Manga character designs seem to be out to deliberately slaughter this pet cow.  These characters undergo wild changes of form on an almost every page, and nobody seems to have any problem with it.  Some of these changes are clearly made in support of the story, usually to increase emotional impact—a character whining for love adopts the size and proportions of a toddler, or a character expressing strong emotions becomes a mere appendage to huge teary eyes or an enormous yelling mouth.

Others seem to be intended to support an effective use of space, with characters in the foregrounds or in large, prominent panels being drawn “realistically” (or at least “manga realistically”) and those in the backgrounds or in smaller, less significant panels drawn in a simplified style.  This simplified style can be downright “cartoony” by Western standards, and yet these two (or even more) drawing styles coexist quite peacefully, often alongside photo realistic or even photo based backgrounds, making three (or more) art styles on  a single page of a single manga.  So I guess that’s two consistency cows slaughtered for the price of one.  And yet it works.

Cow #2 Consistency in plot and genre: We’re told constantly not to overload our plots with “extra” characters, “meaningless” excursions and “irrelevant” details.  Anything that makes a story harder to follow needs to be carefully examined and probably weeded out.  Likewise a story should stick to one genre (science fiction, mystery) or one of the standard combinations (romantic comedy) if its creator wants it to reach the largest possible audience.  People, we are told, like comics (books, movies, TV shows) that can be described in one sentence.

Watch the manga creators turn that cow over on its ear.  Mystery/police procedural/ buddy comedy would be enough genre elements for a Western story.  Trust a manga creator add a homosexual romance with tons of complications and a “kid gang” storyline with its own cast to the mix.  Or take a story of a young man’s effort to make it big in world of rock music—a straightforward coming of age story—and add two or three layers of twisted romance going back to before the main character was born, long sequences of slapstick comedy, lots of gratuitous gunplay (that will makes anyone with basic firearms safety training bite through his or her tongue) and, of course, giant robots.  And these are comics intended for girls and women, who, according to conventional wisdom here, “don’t like that kind of thing”.

Cow #3: “Show, Don’t Tell”:  This is the biggest sacred cow in the herd, and the hardest for Western cartoonists to stop worshiping.  While the manga artists certainly push this cow around a little, they don’t usually assault it in what we consider the most offensive way—with unnecessary captions that explain the action or tell the readers what to think. (I suppose the space limitations of the manga page make that particular crime just plain hard to carry out.)  But the manga are full of little explanatory notes and thought balloons without the balloons—both taking the form of small captions in lower case letters.  The generally clear, uncluttered designs of manga pages make these inserts much less distracting in practice than they sound in a description, and after a while they really start to make a lot of sense.  Sometimes, as a loyal slave of “show, don’t tell”, I find myself adding panels that a manga artist might very well decide were unnecessary, since they could be so easily replaced by a written thought or a single small comment from the creator.  I found this extremely interesting, and may break all my old habits and write something extra in a panel sometime soon.  If I don’t chicken out.

“Borrowing” from the Manga Shelves

No overall value judgments are implied here.  Where there’s a lot about manga that I think is “good comics” by any standards, and much more that I find refreshing and entertaining if not worthy of higher praise, there are a lot of manga conventions that just don’t work for me.  (Spare me from 10,000 tall, willowy characters with enormous eyes and tiny noses who don’t look much like either men or women and can only be distinguished by their varying but always elaborate heads of feathery hair.)  I’m certainly not recommending that Western cartoonists adopt the manga style in its entirety.  I see a lot of comics like that and in my opinion they always seem to have a lingering air of imitation, if not outright pastiche.  Instead of wholesale copying, I support serious reading, and of course, a little judicious borrowing of tricks and techniques that fit in well with one’s own existing style.  Steal, certainly, but only take the good stuff.

If nothing else, a thoughtful look at manga will reveal our own comics-making conventions to be just that, conventions based on a common set of assumptions rooted in Western storytelling and comics culture, rather than immutable laws of nature.  Telling stories the Japanese way works, not just for the Japanese, but with a little help from skilled translators, for us in the West as well.  And  I think that gives us all something to think about.

Sorry, cows.  I didn’t mean for you to hear that.

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#55– the comics convention rule of three

Hopelessly Lost, But Making Good Time #55

The Comics Convention Rule of Three

© 2005, 2012 Pam Bliss

[When these essays first appear on Sequential Tart, they are accompanied by an introduction.  I normally cut these out when I edit each essay for posting in the archive.  But I kind of like this one, so I’m leaving it in.]

This month’s installment was supposed to be the second part of the discussion of the conventions of manga and their implications for Western cartooning. But the schedule has been blown out of the water by the combined forces of our bathroom remodeling and the necessities of preparing for SPX, which is the biggest convention I do all year, the only one I fly to, and the only one I attend alone.  All of which make it sort of scary …

Now, I like to think I could write an amusing piece about the bathroom—how much cast iron bathtubs weigh (315 pounds), the difficulties inherent in selecting from ten almost identical shades of pale green with which to paint the walls, and speculation as to why there are about 50 different models of lavatory faucet available locally, while it’s almost impossible to find a really good Japanese brush pen except by international mail order.  But except for the pen part, that really doesn’t have all that much to do with the matter at hand.  Luckily, I think I can put together a fairly decent essay from the con preparations.

At least I hope so, because this is already late. But a good idea executed today is almost always better than a perfect idea executed next week.  And the best battle plans ever made don’t survive the first contact with the enemy.

The Comics Convention Rule of Three

Like so many complicated processes, preparing for and doing a con can be condensed into a Rule of Three.  If the rules seem mutually contradictory, chalk it up to experience, since nothing in the real world is ever anything else.

Rule Number One: Be Prepared

Plan Ahead:  Otherwise known as having all your ducks in a row.  Have a list of everything you are going to take to the con and make sure you pack it and take it.  (Hint: that box of inventory is not going to do you any good sitting at home on the kitchen floor. As I once learned the hard way.)  It may help to divide your list into categories.

Inventory:  The comics and books you plan to sell, along with auxiliary merchandise like T-shirts, buttons, and prints, and any “freebies” you plan to distribute.  If you are flying and going to check any luggage, be sure to put some of your inventory in your carry on.  Not only will you have it to start with while the airline searches for your missing bag, but you’d  be surprised how many times you can sell comics to people you meet on the plane.

Display:  Your tablecloth, plus the stands, objects, and signs that give your table its distinctive look.

Business supplies:  Your traveling ledger or notebook, plus your change. ALWAYS bring plenty of change, even if you are flying and that $15 worth of quarters gets a little heavy.  Never put cash in checked bags.

Art supplies:  If you plan to do sketches at the con, you’ll need blank paper and drawing tools.  Otherwise, bring your own regular sketchbook and a pencil case.  If you are flying, leave your fountain pens at home, since the changes in pressure will cause them to leak all over the universe.

Personal stuff: Clothes, medication, toiletries, etc.  Bring more clothes than you really need if you can spare the weight and space, since changing is good.  I could tell you  a horror story of doing a con without a spare pair of pants … let’s just say I was very glad we passed that Army-Navy store on the way to dinner.  And I’m sure my friends had fun helping me pick out that pair of khaki summer weights.

Paperwork:  This is absolutely crucial.  If you’ve been planning ahead all along, you’ll have accumulated a big stack of papers: tickets for travel, hotel reservations, confirmations from the con organizers about your table.  Bring all of this, in a safe, secure place, and be ready to wave it around if anybody gives you any trouble.  If you don’t have written confirmation of any part of this, bring photocopies of your cancelled checks or credit card records.

Finally, the cell phone is the traveling cartoonist’s best friend.  Bring your phone, and keep it turned on.  Make sure all your traveling companions and friends at the con have you number, as well as the people left at home.  Don’t forget that charger!

I’ve always said I could do a con with just the comics, some change, the paperwork, my cell phone, a yellow legal pad, four Sharpies and a change of underwear, but I’ve never tried it, and would prefer not to.  [Today, a smartphone and a credit card reader might also be on your list of essentials.]

Rule Number Two: Be Flexible

Then be aware that all your careful plans could go to Hades in a handbasket any minute, and try not to panic.  A good cartoonist is ready for anything.  Most problems can be worked through.  Remember your phone, and the ever-useful customer relations sentence “That is not acceptable”.  If the substances really hit the fan, a credit card with a high limit can be a useful emergency tool.  (If you have a driver’s license and a credit card, you can rent a car and just drive away from all kinds of trouble.)   And try to keep in mind that it is just a comics convention.  It’s going to be fun, and it can be important for business and professional reasons, but if you miss it, you miss it.  Sometimes getting home safe is a victory in itself.  And think of the comic that the story will make.

This healthy flexibility needs to extend to your business plans.  Every con is different.  Even one that is in the same place, on the same weekend, year after year will bring out a different crowd every time, and who knows what the heck they are going to do?  One year, nobody wants anything but minicomics and other stuff with a low price point, and the next it’s all about the bound volumes and they’re standing in line to give you 20 bucks.  Sell 10 T-shirts one year, and none the next.  You can, and should, do your best to make rational decisions about inventory and pricing, but don’t take too much of the credit when you’re right, or blame yourself too much when you’re wrong.  One of the great mysteries and delights of convention work is trying to interpret and analyze that most intriguing of creatures, the potential customer.  And if you ever figure it out, please let me know.

Rule Number Three: Be a Wild Dog

The successful con attendee, like a wild dog,  is alert, out for fun and loyal to its packmates.  Be ready to learn from, and have fun with, everyone you meet and everything that happens.  Interact positively with your table mates, other cartoonists, experts, critics and fans, and everyone else who crosses your path.  You never know who may offer the insight or spark the idea that flavors your work for the rest of the year.  Be especially prepared to talk shop with your colleagues for as long as all of you can stay awake.  I’ve learned most of what I know at the knees of giants, and a surprising amount of that learning came in lobbies, restaurants, hotel rooms, and bars.

At the same time, be alert to your own safety and your friends’.  Don’t forget basic personal security in hotel rooms, in cars, and on the street.  Never get into a car alone with someone you don’t know and trust. Being “buddies” with a trusted friend is one of the best ways to stay in control in social situations.  Partying to excess, while tempting, is usually counterproductive and can be downright dangerous in a strange environment.  If nothing else, a hangover will sap your alertness the next morning!  In general, its best to avoid having *too much* fun, which can result in problems ranging from missed flights to offending someone you really don’t want to offend.

And just believe, no matter how bad your pre-con jitters, and how hassled you are right before you leave, and whatever happens on the way, you are almost certainly going to have a really good time when you finally get to the con.  At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

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#54– how i learned to stop worrying and love reading “backwards”

Hopelessly Lost, But Making Good Time #54

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Reading “Backwards”

© 2005, 2012 Pam Bliss

I’ve been wanted to write about manga for a long time. I’m so far behind the social trends on this that I feel like I’m suddenly surrounded by readers, particularly readers who are young and female, for whom manga are not an exotic novelty but simply the comics that they prefer to read.  It’s time I got with the program.

I’m obligated to say a couple of things before I begin.  First, after considerable soul searching I’ve decided not to name the  specific comics that I’ve been reading—this is a how- to column (sort of), not a review column, and I’m not confident in my ability to combine the two and keep the resulting crossbreed under control.  But I will say I’ve been dabbling in “flipped” manga (comics where the panels and speech balloons are rearranged to suit Western left-to-right reading patterns) for some years. And recently I’ve read two complete series (one of seven volumes and one of 12) and scattered volumes of several others in the currently popular  “authentic” unflipped format.  So I’m really a bit of a newbie, and  I realize that I’m in a vulnerable position.  To the manga experts who may be reading this, I’m sure everything I say here is at best old news, and at worst, totally wrong.

Also, I won’t claim that my recent manga reading has being spread evenly over the many categories of manga or the many genres found in these comics.  The vast bulk of my reading,  done as research for another project (always reuse your research for as many purposes as possible!) consists of shoujo manga, comics created primarily by women, and  intended primarily for a young, female audience .  I have a great interest in these comics, perhaps because they are the form of manga I see as the most different from the American mainstream comics I grew up with.  On a personal note, I can only say that I would have *killed* for comics like these when I was 15, and they still pull plenty of my chains at 40+.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Reading “Backwards”

I’ll admit that until my recent shoujo marathon, I’d never quite gotten the hang of reading comics backwards.  Tokopop includes a handy chart at the back of each volume(what inexperienced Westerners think of as the front) showing how to hold the book and in what order to read the panels and the speech balloons, and it’s very useful, but I still found myself flipping back and forth between the story and that pesky chart.  I could wade my way through,  but it was like looking at mud.  I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read English text fluently, and I’ve been “reading” the special language of comics pretty efficiently for almost as long, and the shedding of my familiar and trusted skills was disturbing to say the least.  I wonder if this clumsiness was at least in part responsible for my failure to give manga a fair shake before this.

And no, I don’t think “flipping” is the answer.  As an artist, I hate the way my own work looks when flipped, and I’d sure hate to support doing that to somebody else’s drawings.  And what do you do about the sound effects and the speech balloons and all that good stuff?  Panel compositions are tricky enough as it is.  I do think that unflipped manga look and feel better, as well as being more honest, even if the learning curve can be steep.

The key, I think, is to find a manga you can’t resist, and a situation where you have to put it down and pick it up frequently.  I made my breakthrough while reading a very amusing and rather twisted romance story while behind a convention table.  Obviously the need to talk to my customers and other passers by about various crucial subjects trumped my need to find out what happened next in the story, so I read a few pages at a time and that seemed to help.  If you can’t manage a con, try reading manga at work, or in school.  (Did I really say that?  I certainly can’t recommend doing any such thing.)

Somewhere partway through the second volume, I found myself reading along quite smoothly and happily.  I suppose my problem was really just a matter of old dogs and new tricks; “the kids” certainly don’t seem to have any difficulty with this task.  And once you learn, it’s fairly easy to go back and forth.  (Although I seem to want to tackle the Sunday comics manga style, oddly enough.  Doesn’t seem to hurt them much, though.)

I went into all this detail on a somewhat mundane subject for a reason.  Maybe this won’t be true of anyone else, but I found learning to “read” comics backwards to be a very enlightening and liberating experience.  Simply following the panels across the page in an unfamiliar order seemed to scrape a callus off whatever it is I use to set up my own page compositions.  All of a sudden, I’m acutely conscious of the cues I use to guide the reader’s eye from panel to panel, and all the tired tricks I’ve been using for years are standing out in high relief.  And they’re looking a little *too* familiar.   It’s too early yet to see whether some of the shoujo tricks, which I’m sure are clichés in their own context,  will end up looking fresh on my mini pages, but one can only hope.

Another Odd Thing About Manga

The second thing a Western comics reader is likely to notice about these manga, or even the first, if reading right to left doesn’t bug you, is the whole new world of page compositions.  There are far fewer panels for page than in a typical Western comic, and the regular, repeated pattern of a two or three tier grid is almost entirely absent. Many, if not most, pages have only two horizontal tiers, and there is a much greater use of vertical panels, often on the right hand margin of the page. (And cool panels they are, too, often containing a full length figure.)  Panel counts as low as two are very common, and a typical page might have three to six  panels.  The nine or even more panels so familiar here are almost unknown in manga and would probably have to be classified as a special effect.

To compensate, manga panels often have more complex interior compositions, with multiple actions, or an action and multiple reactions going on at once.  Combine this with printing techniques that allow creators to “bleed” panels and extend the action all the way to the edge of the page when they choose to do so, and this makes for a pretty wide range of layouts without adding unwanted complexity.

All this is necessary, of course, because manga pages tend to be smaller than the pages of Western comics.  Sometimes a lot smaller.  The “tank” size used in many manga is slightly smaller than a digest, and not all that much larger than a mini, which is similar in shape.  The implications for minicomics artists are obvious.  One of the problems with Western minis has always been creators’ desire to emulate the “real” comics around them and pack the tiny pages with similar panel counts.  For every creator who develops a clean, pared down art style that stays comprehensible in tiny spaces, there are a dozen others whose minis never quite escape being either cramped or muddy.  A study of some manga, with their open, low panel count layouts can offer a new model for the minicomics page.

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#53– the dance of the deadline

Hopelessly Lost,  But Making Good Time #53

The Dance of the Deadline

© 2005, 2012 Pam Bliss

Deadlines.  Nasty things, those.  Make them if you can, even if you sacrifice both peace of mind and sleep.  Miss them at your peril, since your reputation will rise and fall on your success.  But deadlines are a fact of life, and, like many other unpleasant facts, they can be survived with care and planning.

There are many kinds of deadlines, and the first step to managing them is to figure out just what type you are dealing with.  Deadlines can be classified by source:  they can be imposed from outside, by editors, or you can lay them on yourself.  Or you can sort them by pattern; there are regular short term deadlines like the weekly or monthly ones of the creator of a webcomic or an essay series like this one, and regular long term deadlines for larger projects that appear one or perhaps a few times a year on a fixed schedule.  If you keep a diary or a daily drawing sketchbook, you can have a daily deadline.  Bloggers and tweeters may even have several deadlines every day.  Then there are irregular deadlines, like contest entry deadlines, anthology submission deadlines, and the several-times-a-year rush of small pressers to finish the new minicomic in time for the big con.

Finally, you can rank deadlines by their significance.  Have you signed a contract to make this deadline?  Will you get fired if you don’t?  How much are you getting paid?  How much do you stand to lose?  Have you made a promise to get the work done, and who have you made it to?  Have you said anything in public about your plans, and how big a fool are you going to look when they don’t quite come to pass?

Know Yourself

The key to dealing with deadlines is to avoid them whenever possible, and enter into them with your eyes open when you can’t.  And the way to do that is to know yourself.  It’s absolutely vital  to learn everything you can about your own abilities and work patterns.  Just what can you do, and how fast can you do it?  Be realistic.  Don’t base your assessment on your all time best—on that one golden week when everything seemed to “click” and you did more and better work than you ever had before.  It may never happen again.  Instead look at average weeks, and bad weeks.  There are going to be a lot more of those.

Keep a work diary, for several years if possible, and make it as detailed as you can.  How many hours a day or week can you realistically plan to spend working on comics?  How long does it take you to write a page, pencil a page, ink a page?  Do you work faster on a big page or a small one?  Can you work “a page a day” consistently over time?  It’s crucial to be honest here.  Self-confidence is all well and good, but this is a place to face the unvarnished truth. The worst thing any creator can do is to bite off more than she can chew, take on too many obligations,  and then fail to meet them.

This means you have to learn to say NO when someone asks you to do something you can’t handle. It’s so tempting to say yes to every intriguing idea, especially when you are just starting out.  The thought that someone else, perhaps someone more established, likes your storytelling chops and wants to work with you on a project is absolutely intoxicating.  But a wise person knows when to say “no thank you” when offered any kind of intoxicant.

How do you decide when to say yes?  And how do you decide what to work on, and how hard, when your schedule contains several possibly competing deadlines?  Like so many things, this is up to you.  Everyone has different priorities.  I can only suggest that you give this some thought now, rather than waiting until the crunch is on.

My own personal list goes something like this:

  • 1) Fulfilling written contracts.
  • 2) Fulfilling verbal agreements.
  • 3) Working on projects that pay up front. No apologies here—if you pay me, you get my full attention.  Money talks.
  • 4) Working on personal projects like my own minicomics, unpaid anthology submissions and the like.

Please take one piece of actual advice.  Don’t ever fall down on a contract.  Don’t give your word lightly, but keep it when you do.  Being a professional has very little to do with how you earn the money to pay the rent, or even with how well you write or draw.  It has everything to do with rock solid personal integrity and reliability.  A “real pro” makes her contracted deadlines every single time, or as close to it as a fallible human being can come.  Get a reputation for being a flake, and you will put a very large and long lived obstacle in your path to reaching that exalted status.

Living with Deadlines

So if deadlines are everywhere, traps for the unwary, how do you keep from chewing your own foot off to make your escape?  There’s a trick to it, or more than one.  There are always tricks …

First of all, take on as few outside commitments as possible.  He travels fastest who travels alone, and the writer/artist who only mentions his projects to others when they (the projects ) are completely finished is the only one of us who is truly free.  Only the needs of his stories and his own artistic compulsions bind him to any schedule at all.  Not all of us can, or even want, to work that way, but the closer we get to that ideal the more we can live in the perfect moment and allow the “flow” experience to just happen.  I know I prefer the Zone to any other place I know.

Distant deadlines for large projects can be daunting—they always seem so far away until suddenly they aren’t.  The only solution to this is planning.  Take a day or two at the very beginning and look at what steps you will have to take to finish the project, and set a series of sub deadlines for yourself.  It’s harder to shove the whole thing off on the future, and maybe make too many other commitments for the intervening months, when you know you have to have that script finished next week.

Smaller, regular deadlines are easier to keep than you might think.  If you have them long enough, they become a regular part of your routine.  You can also try working ahead.  It’s easy enough to keep two or three or six weeks of your strip or webcomic “in the can” in case of emergency, or to keep a spare column or essay in reserve.  Make sure the reserve material is universal, dealing with a neutral topic that can be inserted everywhere.  In fiction it might be a flashback or other piece of backstory, or a  short story featuring a second string character in a lead role.  In nonfiction, pick a subject that everyone can relate to.  Like deadlines.

Uh, oh.  I’ve just used up my spare “Hopelessly Lost” , the one I’ve been saving for more than four years.  I’ll have to write another one now.  I wonder where I can fit that into my schedule.

[I never did write that spare essay.  I’ve been flying by the seat of my past on this series since July of 2005.]

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#52– how to draw a fox

Hopelessly Lost,  But Making Good Time #52

How to Draw a Fox

© 2005, 2012 Pam Bliss

What to do with all those pictures

Let’s say you’ve taken all my good advice to heart (good luck if you have, because what works for me may not work for you) and you’ve carefully collected a wide range of  good, clear pictures of all the things your planned comics story will require you to draw.  Now what?

The first thing to remember is that the best pictures in the world can’t teach you to draw.  If you intend to make a comic by copying each image carefully from a photograph, you probably will be disappointed with the result.  In fact, I can pretty much promise that you will, and only hedged my statement because I’ve seen some awfully interesting comics done just that way.  But those comics (without exception!) were created by cartoonists who already know how to draw beautifully, and who were using the “photocollage” look as a special effect.

For the rest of us, slavish reliance on photo references will produce drawings that are stiff, awkward, stagy and badly designed.  The perspective will range from “hinky” to “way off”,  light sources will fly around the page like UFOs, and people, objects and architectural details will float in undefined space with no relationship to either the imaginary “ground” or to each other.  This is not a formula likely to produce the illusion of reality that is essential to good storytelling, and which is the goal of all comics art.

Instead, use your photo references to learn the essential recognition points of the subject you plan to draw, to study the crucial details that give it it’s special “self”, and to relate what you want to learn to draw to something you already understand.  This can be something rather abstract, like using photo references to turn a plain cylinder (drawn properly in correct perspective according to the rules you learned in school art class) into a recognizable image of a Saturn V rocket.  Or it can be very lively, like learning to draw a horse from life, and models, and videos, and then using photo references to turn it into a zebra.  (And it’s not just a matter of the stripes, either—the zebra’s ears are a very different shape from those of a horse.)

How to Draw a Fox

But this wouldn’t be a long sequence of “Hopelessly Losts” without at least one extended example.  As always, it’s drawn from my own pretty fair sized private stock of things I learned the hard way, so please take it with a grain of salt.   Your mileage may vary.

A while ago, I found that I had written a lot of stories about foxes, or involving foxes in some way, and I discovered that I did not know how to draw a fox.  I thought I did—a fox is a member of the dog family after all, and if there’s one thing I know how to draw, it’s a dog.  But my foxes turned out looking just you’d expect from someone who had the guts to write the previous sentence.

Now, it’s true that a fox is like a dog in its bodily proportions and its legs bend the same way, and there’s a certain essential doggishness about its skull.   But if you draw a fox  while thinking about that, what you get is a dog with pointy ears and a bushy tail—a lot more like a border collie than any fox that ever walked the earth.

To learned to draw the fox, I first looked at lots of foxes.  The ones in the park, being nocturnal, succeeded in avoiding me, though I saw a few tracks, but I went to a couple of zoos and saw some live ones.  They were mostly asleep, but I saw them.  I collected some nature shows on video, and watched those.  I got a whole stack of books out of the library, and bought some more.  I even went to museums and studied some poor foxen (actual Old English plural) who had been unlucky enough to stuffed and become exhibits.  I didn’t draw, I just looked.

And while I looked I asked myself  what makes a fox different from a dog?  Its legs are longer, its body more cylindrical.  Its tail is not just bushy—it’s huge, fully as long again as the fox’s whole body.  Its paws are small, as are its pointed ears, and its muzzle is much finer and a little shorter than a wolf’s  or a natural dog’s, so its face is almost triangular.  It’s eyes are slit pupiled like a cat’s.  The red fox, which was what I wanted to learn to draw, has many color forms, but they all have black legs and white tips on their tails.

It was only when I’d gotten this far that I started drawing again.  I began copying photographs into my sketchbook.  I really like adding this extra step, rather than copying from a photo directly onto a finished page, particularly when I know I’m going to be drawing something repeatedly in continuity.  It’s probably too much work for a minor prop or a single appearance, but if you want to really make something your own, it can be an effective approach.  I pretended that each photo was a real fox that I was actually seeing, and did my best to draw it “from life”, making notes as I went.  I tried to do this four or five times a day for a week or so, and I ended up with a group of fox drawings that are as close to scientifically accurate as I can make them.  Which isn’t very, but I learned a lot.

When I started my fox comics, I used these drawings of my own for reference as much as I could, going straight to photos only if I needed a new pose that I couldn’t get to work on my own.  And after a while, that didn’t happen very often.  I was suddenly a person who could draw a fox.

The technique can be adapted to anything, living or not, by plotting the new subject onto something you already know how to draw, even if it is a simple abstract form.  Use your references to determine what makes your subject unique, and figure out the points that distinguish it  from other things that are similar.  If you emphasize these points in your drawings, chances are your readers will recognize, very naturally and organically, just what it is you are trying to draw.

And after all, isn’t that what we really want?  Maybe that’s not all we’re looking for, (even I will admit to having higher ambitions for some of my better drawings), but if we don’t achieve that basic communication,  it’s impossible to go any further.

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#51– other people’s pictures

Hopelessly Lost, But Making Good Time #51

Other People’s Pictures

© 2005,2012 Pam Bliss

It’s always best to take your own reference photographs whenever you can.  But you can’t always find time to drive across town to take a picture, much less travel to Morocco or Nepal or any other place that might make an otherwise perfect setting for a comic. And Mars or Jupiter are out of all our reaches.  Sometimes we are stuck working with other people’s photographs.

There are old ways and new to accomplish this. Old fashioned ways include the morgue, and books. I’m sure a lot of our younger readers have never seen an artists’ morgue, but they were fascinating places.  Instead of refrigerated drawers of grisly contents, this kind of morgue was a mundane filing cabinet, or more than one, full of endless images clipped from magazines, newspapers and advertising.  The maintainer of a well-filled morgue spent hours every week collecting and organizing the clippings, and she could find you a picture of just about anything you could think of within minutes.  Such a morgue was an incredibly valuable resource, often passed from teacher to student.

I don’t know anyone who keeps a morgue any more, but books are still a standby.  A good picture book is nothing more or less than a group of photos of  collected in one place in a compact  and easily stored format.  Research moves along at a good clip once you’ve built a collection covering all your favorite subjects.  Plus, picture books are wonderful in their own right—they are nice objects to live with and fun to collect.  Remainder tables, used book stores and library discards are all excellent resources for the collector of useful books of pictures.  Remember that photos themselves never go out of date, even if the text that accompanies them is completely obsolete.

And there is no pleasanter pastime in the world than gathering together a pet or two, a favorite beverage and musical recording, and a stack of picture books, and leafing through the books while listening to the music and sipping the beverage, while the pets sleep around you in a tasteful arrangement.  Not only is this a great way to kill an idle hour or two, but I am convinced that it makes you a better artist.  By looking and looking at good photographs, especially a variety of images of the same subject, the “right” shape of things sort of seeps into your brain and lodges there, ready to emerge through the pencil at the appropriate time.  Or at least that’s what I tell people when they catch me doing it.

A variation on the use of books as photo references is to use the public library, or a college or university library if you have access to one, instead of a personal collection.  This has the obvious advantage of being cheaper, and probably can’t be avoided if you haven’t collected much, or are away from home and your own bookcases. But there are disadvantages too.  Library work is time consuming, particularly if you have to include travel time.  It requires you to put on decent clothes and go outside, no fun in bad weather.  Most libraries have limited hours of operation, which can be inconvenient, particularly for the nocturnal cartoonist who needs a picture of a coatimundi right now.

Once you’ve selected your library books, you have the options of carrying them home (and that good clay paper that picture books are printed on makes them heavy), or working on your comic at the library, or making lousy photocopies on the library copier. If the book you choose happens to be part of a reference collection that doesn’t circulate, only the last two choices are open to you at all.  But even taking books home can be annoying, especially keeping close enough track of them to get them returned on time, and if you lose them or mess them up…

It’s actually easier to take a sketchbook or pad, and some simple drawing tools to the library and make sketches there, particularly if you need something fairly simple and specific. Otherwise it’s a matter of doing your best to get a decent clear copy, hopefully without damaging the book, and resigning  yourself to drawing from that. (I really hate drawing from copies!)  It’s still better than no references at all.  I’m old fashioned enough to love books for themselves, and I still buy more new ones than I should.  But I’ll admit I’ve pretty much given up on the library for all the stuff I don’t have.

A New Hope

What have I replaced it with?  In one word,  the Internet.  In two words, “image search”.  Email is great, we all love our message boards and forums, blogs help the world keep track of us and us to keep track of each other, and Pay Pal enables us to buy and sell the wide world over, but the image search feature on your favorite search engine is the real killer ap for  cartoonists.  I can, and regularly do, replace library trips that might take an two hours or more door to door with image searches that take less than a minute.  Yo-yos, horse skulls, balancing rocks and Spitfire fighters appear on the monitor within seconds, ready  to print out, or for those with well designed work areas,  ready to draw right off the screen.

There’s not really much to say about image searches except that if you aren’t using them you’re ignoring a major resource.  Remember to vary your search terms, both wide and narrow, and to try slang terms as well.  You’ll probably find different pictures under “bat” and “bats”.  And when I was learning to draw the famous GM bird icon, I had success with “Firebird hood decal”, but found different useful images under “screaming chicken”.

Another advantage to image search is that you can print images without saving them to your hard drive, thereby saving valuable space.  But don’t print every blessed thing your find.  Be choosy; you usually can afford to be.  Select the largest, clearest  images, ones with contrast between subject and background.  The edge of an object is vitally  important in drawing it.  A well lit image not only has good contrast, but may provide crucial information about an object’s texture as well as its shape.  If you plan to do a lot of printing, a  black and white laser printer, though more expensive to buy in the first place, has lower per page cost than an ink jet.

The on line auction site Ebay is a less well know and often unexploited resource for photo references,  particularly of objects, from cars to cow creamers.  People who really want to sell something take *good* photos!  Most auctions contain several clear pictures,  often including details, undersides, etc.  It’s funny how the selling points of an object are often the same points you have to get right to draw it properly.   Get the biggest, fastest hard drive you can and save the best images of things you’ll want to draw over and over.  Purge images occasionally to save drive space, perhaps when you are finished with a project.   That way you’ll always have room for more.  [Memory has become so cheap that this is no longer much of a consideration.  Flash drives bigger than some people’s hard drives in 2005 are sold everywhere in point of purchase displays, and our hard drives are ten or mor times bigger than we could have imagined back then and cost far less.  My advice now is to buy a huge one for a fairly trivial sum, and save everything.]

2012- I’ve recently discovered  a new internet resource for picture collecting: tumblr, the microblogging site that seems to attract creators of all kinds and people who love images.  I’ve started a tumblr blog to use as a picture file, and it’s been a lot of fun. Not only is it useful as a huge, searchable morgue that’s stored on the web and accessible anywhere with free wifi, but it’s out there on the web for everyone else to look at and follow. (And I love getting new followers!) See my collection of reference images and all kinds of things to look at on the Coelacanth Gallery.

And once you have a tumblr, it’s absurdly easy to make another one.  Hopelessly Lost, But Making Good Time now has its own tumblr, the Hopelessly Lost Toolbox.  Visit the Toolbox for tumblr material aimed at cartoonists, but useful for creators in any media: resources for art and storytelling, for lettering and layout, and for working digitally, plus examples, interviews, inspiration, source material, reading lists, and pep talks of all kinds.


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#50– a cautionary tale

Hopelessly Lost, But Making Good Time  #50

A Cautionary Tale

© 2005, 2012 Pam Bliss

First of all, I’m not dyslexic.  In fact, I’ve been reading fluently ever since I can remember, and if my handwriting is lousy it’s because I’m lazy.  But I have what neurologists have described as a touch of the same kind of thing: I have serious trouble telling my right hand from my left without actually picking up an imaginary pencil.  This doesn’t cause me a lot of problems in my everyday life, although it made learning to drive a little exciting for a while and I still couldn’t tell you which way is North if you paid me.  Don’t worry, there’s a reason I’m telling you all this.

Longtime readers of this series know that I think page turns in comics are very important.  A well designed comic poses a question, or asks a riddle, or establishes a visual situation, and then makes the reader turn the page to discover the answer or uncover the resolution.  A good page turn can prolong suspense and excitement in any story, and the overall pattern can be vital to readers’ full appreciation of  a skillfully plotted comic.

I recently completed the inked pages of a story that is vitally important to me.  It’s a crucial story in my new series, as well as the longest one I’ve ever finished.  I put everything I had into it for months, from research and construction, to script and dialog, breakdowns and panel layouts, and then spent 10 solid weeks penciling and inking it.  Finally, it was finished.  I took the pages to the copy shop for initial reduction, since they are too large for my scanner.  Then, on a whim, because I was going to a convention and would see some trusted colleagues there and I wanted to show off my new story to them, I assembled a set of copies into a proof of the finished comic, with the pages in the order I had planned for them.

You see where I’m going with this, don’t you?  Clouds are building on the horizon and a slow feeling of mild and sympathetic dread is hanging over your head.

I wish I could insert a page turn here.

If I ever reproduce this essay in print, I will do just that.

That’s right.  I dummied up my new book for the first time after it was finished and every single page turn was in the wrong place.  I gave up every secret, every clue, every payoff, every point of my carefully crafted little plot in the middle of a two page spread.  You could call that an enormous, colossal stupid, rookie mistake and you’d be being generous and kind.

There Ain’t Been a Horse that Can Never Be Rode

So what did I do about it?  Well, first I sat there for a long time, leafing through the proof, unable to believe I’d screwed up quite that badly.  Every time I shut the folder, I opened it again in hope that everything would be OK.  When that didn’t happen, I had a temper tantrum and cried quite a lot.  I’m not going to apologize for it, either.  Sometimes having a tantrum first can clear your mind and enable you to address a problem logically.

I firmly believe that if you are flexible in your thinking and have any kind of imagination, you can solve any problem that the making of comics can present to you.  The first step is to assess the problem.  The book as a whole was planned to run 36 pages, with a title page first, a dedication and copyright page on its reverse, and then the first page of a 33 page story.  At the end of the book, a final page of notes would appear on the back of the last page of the story.  But when the story was started on a right-hand page in the conventional manner it, came out completely backwards.

I came up with two logical solutions.  One would be to add four pages to the book, and use one as an additional page in the earliest part of the story to get everything back on track before anything too exciting happens.  The other three could provide space for extra supplemental material—more notes or sketchbook pages or something.  The other would be to rearrange the material I already had , and break with tradition and start the story on a left-hand page.  Since I really loved the story the way it was—or rather, the way it was once I rearranged it so the page turns were in the right places—and I was pressing up against a deadline, I chose to rearrange the book.  The page of notes, with a heavy rewrite and a new title, became a pretty serviceable introduction, and since the story starts slowly, with a meditative splash page, the left-hand start wasn’t really too jarring once I got used to it.  The book went to press this morning, and I’m tolerably pleased with it.

And There Isn’t Been a Rider that Can Never Be Throwed.

But, tolerably pleased or not, I’m sure I would have been happier with the whole project if I’d never made the gruesome mistake in the first place.  At best I’ve learned a pretty stiff couple of lessons.

First and foremost, be humble.  I’m sure part of the initial problem was overconfidence . I’ve been doing this for 16 years, and I’ve made 70 + minicomics, and somewhere along the line I’d gotten the (grossly false) idea that I knew what I was doing.  Believing in yourself is good, but you can take it too far.  I believed with 100% assurance that I could hold a big, significant, complex story in my head all at once, in spite of the fact that I know I have a lifelong problem doing exactly that kind of task.  I was wrong.

Two, if you’re going to plan, plan right.  An elaborate plan that goes wrong is likely to end up with much uglier results than the failure of something that was more organically constructed in the first place.  I always though of myself as a meticulous planner, someone who wants every question answered before she moves on to the next step.  From now on I promise to put my money where my mouth is and build a full double sided dummy of every project at the breakdown stage!

Three, have faith in the process.  Every page of a comic is just that, a page.  It doesn’t have anything on it until you put something there, and you can take one thing off and put something else on as often as you like until the project actually goes to press.  No matter how good or bad your original plan is, you can always fix it.  Cut and paste and cut again.

What all this means to those of you who don’t plan your comics, but just let them happen, I can’t say.  But for the first time I can really see the attraction of working that way.  The worst problems you encounter can’t be any worse than this one.

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