Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Little Idea That Wouldn’t Die: Part Four

Comics are a business. That’s the one thing I overlooked as I started out on my creative journey. During college, I always looked down on marketing majors as people who exploited the ‘real’ art of others. What I didn’t learn until much later on was that marketing is 80% of a product’s success. Just look at the last three Star Wars movies.

 (By the way, did you notice that the last movie could be abbreviated as SW: ROTS? Telling, ain’t it?)

One key element in this saturated market is that the book has to stand out in the first issue. Some of the more successful books are what are called ‘one-offs’ or ‘stand-alone’ books. These are small story arcs taking up one to three issues that tell a good, short story. If the reader gets hooked, then you have a ready-made audience for an expanded story. My book, while distinctive, was going to take a loooong time. By the third issue, I had a reader at a convention tell me “I don’t know where you’re going with this, but I like it so far.” I thought the story was a thing to sit back and enjoy. This is true of a novel or even a movie, but not a comic book. People only have about five minutes to devote to a comic book story; fifteen if it’s written by Kevin Smith, who tends to ramble. I figured my story would start taking off by oh, say, the tenth issue. This was not good business sense.

Each print run was over $1,000 bucks for 1,000 books. One thousand books that didn’t move, didn’t sell well, didn’t grab interest immediately. It had lots of talking, no real action, great scenery but no ‘hook’. In retrospect, it reads more like a movie storyboard with about the same pacing. Diamond Distribution wasn’t interested in it, so I had no way to get it out any farther than I could drive. I drew six issues, but by the third book I was out nearly four grand and made back less than $150. Those boxes are in storage now, slowly being eaten by crickets, I imagine.

I suppose I could have done ten or more issues and printed them as one big book, hoping that someone would like it, but that seemed like a long way off. I averaged about an issue every six months, so I estimated that to finish the story to my satisfaction it would take nearly fifty years. Not good. If I had approached it like a one-off, I might have hooked an audience willing to hang on for several years while I cranked out more books. Instead I drew a movie that was unfolding in my head, expecting others to be as excited to see it as I was. Never mind that the first fifteen minutes were a little slow and they took a year and a half to make.

But enough about my failures as a human being. Next time I’ll delve into the creative process and talk about what went into making the graphic story of Passage.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Little Idea That Wouldn’t Die: Part Three

Doing a comic book, as it turns out, is hard. Nowadays there are a lot of resources for the burgeoning artist, but when I was starting out there were like, three books. One of them was ‘How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way,’ which I avoided because of the style. Most of what I learned was from pulling together scraps of info from the Internet, which can be suspect at times (keep that in mind as you read on!).

I started out by getting a packet of 11x17 Bristol board paper, a vial of black ink, some drawing nibs for my quill, and a blue non-photocopy pencil. I had a sketchbook for layouts and a bottle of artist’s white for corrections. Yay. Now I needed to figure out what to draw. My story was set in ‘medieval times’ but I had no real firm grasp on the time period. In a fantasy setting there can be many things in the same story that wouldn’t have existed together at the same time, like King Arthur wearing a suit of plate armor and living in a great stone castle. Those are called anachronisms and they bug me.

I decided to set the story in an earlier part of my fantasy world’s medieval time, simply for reasons of being lazy. I didn’t want to draw complex architecture, clothing or settings. I also set it ‘on the road’ in the countryside so I didn’t have to draw cities and people. My character was wandering the land like David Carradine’s Caine in ‘Kung Fu’ running into trouble and helping people with her hidden skills, but I planned to have flashbacks to the really interesting parts of her life that would explain who she had been and how she became this bad-ass warrior.

I slogged through one and a half issues before getting bored. I hated penciling a picture, then inking over it, essentially drawing it twice. I was using what would today be considered very old school techniques like cutting out the word bubbles and rubber cementing them to the artwork before photocopying. After I bought a scanner things became easier, but something was still wrong. I wasn’t telling the part of the story that initially interested me. I always wanted the ‘Kung Fu’ TV show to spend more time in the Shaolin monastery and less time in the flea-bitten Old West.

Life was happening too and that has its own challenges. I got married, raised several furry and/or scaly children, and was trying to figure out how to make that all work out. Remember that depression thing? It was still untreated. It’s hard to be steady if you fall into a dark pit for no reason at all. Creative things ground to a halt as I reconsidered every aspect of my comic book. I hated doing the artwork. The story bored me. This wasn’t what I wanted to make. Hrrmm.

Well, that was all fixed by the divorce. I didn’t care anymore about the book, because the rug had been pulled out from under me. I put all my artwork and supplies away for two years and didn’t think about them.

Then one day, like a bolt from the blue, I got my inspiration back. I would write the story I wanted to read, I would do all the artwork as finished pencil drawings, something only a few comics had tried. I began to write about the grand city of Portshia and envisioned a sweeping cityscape that I could create, filled with complex architecture and people wearing complex fashions. I brought the time period forward to include all the cool stuff about the Middle Ages like huge castles and siege weapons and early gunpowder cannons and large sailing ships. I wrote certain bits in iambic pentameter and poetry, I wrote about the homes of the gods and the world at large, and put little details into every page that had meaning to me. I soon found myself creating a sweeping epic story arc that would take the reader from Cindra Corrina’s early beginnings along her warrior path and finally to face her destiny.

That was my first big mistake.

More later…

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Little Idea That Wouldn’t Die: Part Two

Here’s where the real fun of being an artist comes in; your best work is done in the midst of personal tragedy. When painful things happen, you get really good ideas. What a crappy deal. So I had a personal tragedy in my first year at NAU; my girlfriend dumped me and it sent my life into a downward spiral. Little did I know that my larger problem was medical, not personal; I had undiagnosed clinical depression from the age of 11 that would go untreated until I was nearly 30. While this means I had a naturally sucky life, it made for great creative surges.

Anyway, that very night I threw myself into creating a new world. Like an intern god with a cranky boss and a six-day deadline, I slaved away on my personal computer to make what would become the world of Jayde and the city of Portshia as a game setting for Dungeons and Dragons. Because I am so anal and fixated on details, I also began a private study on ancient cultures, medieval life, architecture and various other disciplines. Unfortunately I was at college trying to learn Graphic Illustration. It’s so hard to attend classes when you have so many other interests.

The desire to make a serious graphic novel was kindled a few years earlier when I worked for the Phoenix Public Library, where I discovered ElfQuest. The artist and writer was a woman, which alone made it a stand-out book, but the artwork and emotional story were simply beautiful. I thought, why not combine these interests? I had drawn comic books from an early age, and story telling was rather fun. Why not make a comic book out of this world? It seemed like a good idea at the time. I even had an idea for a dramatic storyline; a girl becomes a warrior with the help of her lover, whom she then dumps. Why? Who the Hell knows? That’s what I was trying to figure out.

I was inspired to write a heartbreaking, exciting and heroic tale. Yay. Now I just needed to come up with an approach. How does one start a story? How do you introduce a character for the first time? How do you even make a comic book in the first place?

Man, this was gonna be a lot of work.

More to come….

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Call of the Letter People

It was in my fifth year when I made the most horrifying of discoveries, a time of which I can barely speak even in the full light of day. I was attending Moon Mountain Elementary when my studies were disrupted by a dark pall of dread that crept over me; twenty-six denizens of the Abyss had entered the classroom and would endeavor to devour the innocent minds of the student body, though I alone would hold out to the last and give my report of those terrifying events so that others might take heed and be forearmed, though little hope of victory might be had.

The teachers, slaves already to the foul beasts, would herd the unwary moppets into a room in the middle of the day, shortly after nap-time. We had encountered dark rumors of the ones called the ‘Letter People’, if 'people' indeed could take such hideous form and tainted manner of speech and action. The trusting children went willingly to their doom, each session breaking down their defenses against the next onslaught. I alone remained, unconvinced of the reassurances given by the wheedling professors, listening to the shouting, singing and possibly screaming of the entrapped minds rotting in their fetid juices just the other side of the door.

To my horror, I learned more from those mind-slaves as they drooled upon themselves, touting the praises of their new gods. Effigies there were that would be hoisted above their heads to lord over them, and they would sing their praises to the mangled forms, worshipping the twisted abominations as the corrupted adults goaded them on. They called out names that played at my sanity, threatening to tear it from its tender roots and hurl it over the brink; Mister M and his Mouth of Madness, Mister T and his Terrible Teeth, Mister H and his Horrible Hair, Miss I and her Infectious Itching. I steeled my resolve, bearing the jeers and torment of the converted, vowing never to enter that unholy place whilst I lived and breathed.

It is only now, writing from the safety of my padded cell, that I can recall these events without disturbing the calm illusions of the general public; without my nervous laughter and shaking limbs belying my differences. Take from it what you can and protect your children! They are after the children! Flee if you are able, even if it be to those godless foreign lands where the letters are strange and senseless. Better senselessness than the fate that awaits you!

Y, oh heaven, do you abandon us to the Yawning mouth of Mister Y?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Little Idea That Wouldn’t Die: Part One

When I tell people I’ve been working on the same story for twenty years or so, I sometimes get the impression that they think I’m the biggest procrastinator in the world, or I just don’t know when to quit. Both might be true I suppose.

For those unfamiliar with the premise of my work (most of you, I imagine), I’ve been developing the story of the life of a female warrior in a fantasy world. Female heroes have always fascinated me, not only because they have such interesting fashion choices, but because the role of action hero has always been one reserved for men, while the woman is the one who always needs rescuing, marrying, or whatever. I love role reversals and I wanted to explore something different.

The Little Idea started sometime in college when I began playing D&D (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd Edition to be specific). I was flipping through the Player’s Handbook, making sure I knew all the rules so I could argue effectively against my conniving dungeon master (is there another kind?), when I came across a painting by Jeff Easley that stuck with me. It portrayed a female fighter, powerful and confident, pulling the nose ring of an ogre she had beaten, having whittled his club down into little chunks. She was muscular, which was rare for a woman in fantasy illustration at the time. She had these neat boots, a fur loincloth (fleas!), a headband and wrist wraps, and a revealing vest. Not terribly practical, but it wasn’t a plate mail bikini for once.

To get a little perspective, this was about five years before ‘Xena: Warrior Princess,’ and the Girl Power movement, when Princess Leia and Ellen Ripley were the standard bearers of the female sci-fi hero. ‘Red Sonja’ came out in 1985, but didn’t have nearly the impact. The successful Buffy TV series was years away. Women could be accepted if they had a big gun, but not a sword. Many female fantasy heroes were victims at first, going on to a life of fighting to avenge some crime, often rape. They were also likely to have some special power that explained how they were such great butt-kickers. The idea of a woman who looked like she could handle herself was something quite new.

Anyhoo, that one painting started The Little Idea. What kind of woman would choose that life and why? What if she had no special power, nothing or no one to avenge, she just wanted to be more than what was allowed? This was reflected in the real world when I created my first D&D character: a female fighter named Cindra Corrina. I was told by the dungeon master that I was being ‘anti-social’ for doing so. I knew I was on to something.

More later….