Archive for August, 2007

Lookin’ Good

You know that saying; good artists borrow, great artists steal? That’s all well and good until you get sued for plagiarism. Seriously, though, there are lots of influences on my comics, some more direct than others. The interesting part is not using a source in place of your own drawing or writing; it is being able to incorporate an idea you like into your own style.
Today I’m thinking about panel compositions. Comics can be irresistible to read, partly because each panel is so fun to look at (see also my previous post on the Panel Project). A pair of talking heads with dialogue above them is the opposite of this. You could give the excuse that comics can’t be too busy looking – a single character with a word balloon is easier to read than a half dozen characters, the Hindenburg, and the entire continent of Antarctica in the background (although I’d like to maybe try that someday).
A good composition can lend interest to an otherwise painfully boring panel. This is especially true if your characters are talking about something, rather than doing something. Calvin and Hobbes’ great philosophical debates wouldn’t have been nearly as gripping if they hadn’t also been sledding downhill at an unbelievable pace. Bill Amend (Foxtrot) would put little things in the backgrounds, just to give the reader another joke on the way to the final panel. In crowd scenes, you could sometimes spot other cartoon characters. When Andy or Roger read the newspaper, there were headlines about an unnamed wealthy, sexy cartoonist. This is all to say, the more interest you create in each panel, the more fun it is to draw and the more likely a reader won’t bail out before the punchline.

All that said, I’ve found a few inspirations for panel compositions: movies and woodblock prints. Movies are great to watch for interesting light/dark balances. It is easier with black and white films, because you’re more focused on the light/dark, rather than the color. Some filmmakers who are especially good at cinematography are Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, the previously mentioned and, sadly, recently deceased, Ingmar Bergman, and Federico Fellini. Part of the reason I love DVD so much is you can pause a movie and get a crystal-clear image. Remember the fuzzy lines when you paused a video tape? I hated that. It was especially annoying when I was trying to draw from a single frame of film. Thanks, technology, for allowing me to steal compositions from great directors. The only downside to using a film’s composition is, they’re horizontal. My comics panels are vertical. I do that to allow more room for the word balloons – the last thing I want is for Ernesto’s head to be cut off by extra verbosity. Otherwise, it’s great to learn from people who know how to balance a shot.

Woodblock prints are great for composition as well. I love the Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) especially. They are almost the same height to width ratio as my comic panels, and they began some of the visual shorthand still used in comics today. It always amazes me how much they could do with a limited pallet. They could show rain, distance, mountains, houses, mist, sunlight…anything they chose. This should hold true for comics today, where we have essentially the same tools. Plus, we don’t have to carve every panel out of a block of wood, so really we have it a lot easier than, say, Hokusai.

I don’t do this all the time for my panel compositions, but when I see a great composition, I really want to try and use it in my comics. I also feel that the more I notice composition in other artists’ work, the better I get arranging them myself.
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New Comics!

The new season of Welcome to Falling Rock National Park will begin August 13, 2007.

In newspapers, distributed by MCT Campus. Online, via

Write your local newspaper editor if you’d like to see Falling Rock in your paper!

I hope you’ve been enjoying my little blog this summer. I hope to continue posting, but I might open up the scope a little, just to spice things up. Hooray for spice.

Ode to the 3/4 View

Ah, the three-quarters view. How I sing it’s praises. How good it looks to draw characters in that way. Perfect for showing a full range of character expression – you can see the full face, but the character isn’t looking directly at the reader. You’ll know it immediately if you see it: one arm obscured by the body, face fully showing but one ear missing, both legs showing with one foot placed slightly higher (further away) than the other. It may look a bit awkward if you think about it too much (and there’s a little cheating going on in order to draw a character that way, in terms of realism), but it’s much better, in my opinion, than when a character looks directly at the reader. Honestly, I think it’s creepy when a character turns to the reader, either as an acknowledgement of the absurdity of the situation the character is in, or with pleading raised eyebrows as if asking, “is this normal where you’re from?” My comics are not documentaries; the characters are not being filmed by a crew, they don’t take coffee breaks and complain about their contracts. Well, maybe the owl. He’d probably like to get paid, he just has to figure out how to do it.

The three-quarters view reminds me of theater staging. Very rarely do you see an actor directly from the side or a direct front view. So, while it may seem a bit strange that all the characters are ideally posed in every panel, it has precedent.

I’ve long been working on ways to draw my characters from the back. If they’re talking facing each other, or running away, it helps to show the back of the head every once in a while. Besides, it gets boring drawing the exact same pose over and over. I found that Carl Barks’ Donald Duck comics were really good at drawing characters’ backs. Donald’s back looks as interesting as his front, which is pretty cool considering there’s much less expression you can see on the back of one’s head. Another challenge (for me) is feet when they’re facing away. You don’t want to make them look like their feet are flipping into the air when they’re just standing there. But that’s all a matter of perspective.

Even when drawing characters’ backs, I still use the three-quarters view.

One notable exception to this is Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy. You see him from the side or (rarely) straight-on. It’s a very interesting style, but one that is so unique that it defies imitation. In my opinion.

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Maple Syrup

I’d like to begin rating my jokes in the same manner as maple syrup. You know, kind of like my own private Ebert & Roeper, except without the thumbs. Does anyone know the standards of maple syrup ratings? Dark, Amber, Light…A, B…I’ve seen them on labels, but have no clue as to what they mean. Plus, I’ve found that almost all real maple syrup tastes pretty darn good, regardless of rating. I won’t get all depressed if I run a weeklong series of Amber jokes.

When I got to thinking about the different type of jokes I tell, I wondered about the ones that are quick to come up with and require little dialogue. They don’t happen often, and they often seem so “light” that I wonder if it’s even worth the time to draw them. Not that they aren’t any good – I personally like comics that are witty but don’t employ endless dialogue (think Mutts). It’s just one of those things I think about, as I sit at my drawing table. “This comic takes a while to draw. The person reading it will likely stare for less than 20 seconds, grunt, and move on.”

Should I really make that person sit another 5 seconds? Should I be making “heavier” jokes if I’m going to invest my time into drawing them up real purty-like? I think, no: comics are funny because they are light. If I wanted to write dialogue-heavy, meticulously reworked jokes, I’d write a 500-page novel and be done with it.

It sounds absurd, but this is the kind of debate I have in my head as I draw comics. “Should I even be doing this? What’s the point?” Then I have to prove to myself why I’m doing comics and not anything else. Fortunately, I manage to persuade myself.

It’s about building up just enough self-esteem to continue on. I love seeing the finished product, printed on newsprint. When I get to that point, I’m always happy.

This post started on one topic but ended on an entirely different one.

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Write What You Don’t Know

There are many topics I’ve never written about, mainly because I know nothing about them. I know, lack of knowledge shouldn’t really stop me. Sometimes it does, though. Here’s a list of some things I’ve never written about:

The state of Oklahoma
Ancient Greece
Modern Greece
Certain concepts of Chemistry
Richard F. and Ann Neal Cleveland, parents of President Grover Cleveland
The endangered Snow Leopard
Bob Newhart
Jim Rice (player for the Boston Red Sox)

It isn’t a very long list, I realize, because it’s hard to think of things that I normally don’t think about. Scouring the internet helps. Maybe I’ll add more later.

New Comics, and New Comics

Welcome to Falling Rock National Park: Season 2 has begun! Check my website for new comics. If your paper doesn’t carry Falling Rock, write the editor! They listen to the people who pay for the paper a lot more than some cartoonist who just takes up space with his silly picture-stories.

In other news, I attended the annual Portland Zine Symposium over the weekend. For those of you not in Portland, the Zine Symposium is for those who have published their own zines to sell or trade with like-minded folks. There were six or so rows of tables in a large but still very crowded room. I brought copies of my comic book, Dancing with Jack Ketch, to trade. Most everyone was happy to trade with me, so now I have a stack of new comics to read.

It’s very exciting to talk with people who are making comics as well as publishing on their own. I know for me making comics will always be a part of my life, but getting others to read them takes a different part of your brain. For Falling Rock I rely on MCT Campus to distribute my comics, but if I have an idea for a comic book, then it’s up to me to get it out there. Self-publishing is a quick and satisfying way to do this – quicker, I should say, than sending it around to various publishers and waiting for the inevitable rejection. The difficult part is, I’m no salesman, so I’m glad there are events like the Zine Symposium so I can get my comic out to other people without feeling like I’m selling anything.

I’m sure most of you artiste-types can relate. You do what you love, but when it comes to making a living, it’s most baffling. Publishers exist for that reason, but when publishers want nothing to do with you, you have to take the proverbial duck by the horns and self-promote. It’s something I’m still working on.

A thin black line

I’ve been using my PITT brush pen for a few years now, and for the most part it makes me very happy. I like the variations in line width it gives me, and I don’t have to keep dipping it and cleaning it. I just get a new one when the brush nib wears out. Which brings me to my quandry. Lately, I’ve been running through these brush pens very quickly – I’ll wear one down drawing maybe two weeks’ worth of comics. That’s just too fast; they used to last me at least a month.

At the same time, I’ve been considering going back to a regular pen, like a Micron (or the PITT equivalent). They don’t give me the brush-like line quality, but I do like the way it looks. Less chunky lines would help my drawing style, is what someone suggested to me.

So should I switch to a regular old pen? Or stick with my brush pen? I wonder if other cartoonists change the types of pens they use as often as I do. Comic strips are well known for their consistency; I imagine a cartoonist could get letters of complaint if readers spotted a marked difference in the drawings from one day to the next. On the other hand, I think I’m in a good place to make changes. Falling Rock is, at two years, still a relatively young strip.

Any suggestions?