Wednesday, October 16, 2019

CREATING COMICS: UK Edition! - ENTRY #002


The Masters in Comics program at University of Dundee is rolling right along! We are doing a ton of mind-bending reading, covering metafiction and formalism, structuralism and comics systems, semiotics and sci-fi, Cronenberg and King (ok, those last two are personal choices!) My head is crammed with new inspiration and insights, and getting to explore some of these in comic form has been quite thrilling.

My personal project for Creating Comics is coming along nicely. Above, you can see my first crack at character designs. I am keeping the style quite simple, pretty cartooney, so that I can really exaggerate the emotion and the form of the character throughout The Silo Run. He definitely undergoes a transformation through the story so I've been playing with how his body reacts and how I can mess with the style and colour process of the book to reinforce this transformation.

But let's dig into the thumbs...


As I stated last week, things start nice and simple with the 9-panel grid, assuring the audience that everything is going to be nice and safe....until I pull the rug out from under them later!


Things are still quite conservative in the panelling here. I'm really focused on creating a sense of rhythm with the panels, like quick editing cuts, Edgar Wright style, to match the preparation of the runner, then follow them through the first gruelling run around the silo.

You can see sound-fx starting to peek in here, and I really want to make them a solid visual presence throughout.


I'm starting to drop some text in here and there as it occurs to me. The tough part right now is thinking about how much text I really need. If you can successfully tell a story visually, without being confusing, and it resonates emotionally, then you have to be sure that you add text that further strengthens these ideas without getting redundant.

You'll notice here our first break from the 9-panel grid, as things jump to the 6-panel. I'm also playing with time here as we see the seasons begin to change around our character. Also, we gradually notice that the character is further and further out of the panel, suggesting his speed is increasing, like "the camera" is having trouble keeping up.


And BOOM, things really start to break open here. As our character's speed increases and the comic begin to lean into its more fantastical concepts, the page layout begins to get more experimental: the character is breaking the border, we have a panel without borders, a panel that shatters and of course, we are now in a double-page spread. The wide panels are ideal for conveying the idea of speed.


Haha, ok, now we are cooking, as our page layout breaks into three full-bleed, widescreen panels. Our character is now trying to break the speed of light and a series of inset panels are giving us the inside scoop on the physical, mental and emotional barriers that are being crossed here. Not all of these panels will be explained as I'd like to leave their translation up to the audience (i.e. the character vomiting, the character hunched over while looking into a mirror.)

Our angle on the character changes as well: at first we are looking at the front 3/4 view, then the character seems to run in front and then pass us, as we see his rear 3/4 view.


Now this. Was fun. As our character races towards their next reality-smashing goal, all of the panels themselves get caught up in his wake, a page absolutely inspired by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's WE3. Once again we have panels featuring various objects and moments of physical and emotional strain, implying all of the ways this journey has tested our character, all of the trials and challenges that are being overcome and the toll it is taking. This is the page where I plan to get experimental with the CMYK values and off-register colours.


And finally, we wrap up here, back in our cozy, quiet 9-panel grid, as our character gets a chance to impart a few words to themselves. It is a quiet, introspective ending to a madcap story so I tried a few different layouts to see which would be the most emotionally affecting. There is actually a third one as well that is not pictured. In the end, I will probably go with the one on the right, as those close-ups really sell the emotion. And that shady panel on the top right of the left page is just too damn spooky for the story!

We were very fortunate to have a visiting artist this week, Anna Morozova, a recent grad of the MDes program at Dundee and an artist with 2000AD! While she did enjoy the layout for the story, she really encouraged me to explore different media and styles throughout. This would act as a challenge for myself, a way to learn some new techniques and could also push the emotional level of the story to new heights.

So with that advice, I move on to the next stage of the project:
  • penciling all 12 pages
  • inking all 12 pages on Procreate (to have them finished and ready to rock if need be)
  • experimenting with various styles on several test pages to see how they integrate with the inks
Lots of work to be done...


Monday, September 30, 2019

CREATING COMICS: UK Edition! - ENTRY #001

Huge life changes have been undergone over the last few months, and Natasha and I now find ourselves living in Edinburgh, Scotland. I've been told by many that this is one of the most beautiful cities on the planet, and thus far, it is living up to the hype!





We've been here for a little over a month and we have a great flat, a bank account, a phone plan, a GP, and most importantly, our cat. Making the move over the pond was one of the most challenging things we've ever had to do, but we are here and we are ready to take on the next challenge: becoming Masters, haha! 



While Natasha is taking her MFA in Edinburgh, I will be pursuing a Master of Design in Comics and Graphic Novels at the University of Dundee. The trail was blazed by fellow Calgarian cartoonists like Jillian Fleck and Dan Barnfield, who both graduated from this program with great things to say about it.



School has pretty much just begun. After a couple years teaching at ACAD (now AUArts) it feels really strange to be a student again. But my mind and spirit are ravenous, insatiable, ready to devour new ideas and inspiration, and to focus all my creative energies on exploring comics and pushing my storytelling skills. I'm also eager to meet and be inspired by my fellow MDes classmates, who seem like an enthusiastic and incredibly talented bunch. Not to mention my knowledgeable and insightful teachers!

I have been tasked with keeping a process journal on the creation of my main project for the Creating Comics class. This will work out great for the blog, as I will be forced to make updates, which will also give you all an inside peek at the process and a way to see what I'm up to in the UK. Everybody wins! So without further ado...


Creating Comics - Entry #001:


I'v just begun work on a story that has been locked up in my head for a couple years now. THE SILO RUN concerns a runner who races around an abandoned silo in an attempt to beat their own record time, getting into shape along the way...then maybe shove it in a few people's faces. In the process of trying to beat their own time, they begin to push the boundaries of science and the human body, space and time, leading them to a critical moment of confrontation.


My usual process is up for reinvention here. While I normally script first, wearing my writer hat before moving into thumbnails, I've decided to go visual with this, knowing I need to keep the page count to 12 pages in order to finish, while letting the visuals guide the story. This is good, as my first crack at the script was already becoming unnecessarily wordy. After the thumbnails are finished, I will see what words are necessary to convey the emotion and inner thoughts, providing added layers that support the narrative as opposed to dominating it.


So the first thing I did (after canning my script) was to break the pages into little thumbs, and briefly write a description of what I needed to happen on each page. At this stage, I was already getting ideas on how to do the layout. I'm starting things simply with a 6-panel grid then slowly progressing into double-page spreads as the story reached its grand crescendo.



I also started taking a few scienc-ey notes to ground the story a bit, while not being entirely beholden to science Fact. Y'know, like Christopher Nolan does in Inception.

How do those dream machines work?


Who cares!? Let's throw JGL in a monstrous spinning gimbal room and toss him about!



And here are a couple quick doodles of people running to get my mind thinking about how the body moves as it runs and how I can begin to exaggerate that throughout the comic. Being able to convey dynamism and tension and colossal effort will be integral in making this story work. 

This is a great start, lots of ideas are bouncing around already.


The next steps:

  • rough thumbnails, to get a sense of how the narrative unfolds visually
  • rough character design, so we see what our character could look like, and if they will fit the story
  • a style board: a finished panel with ink and colour that will give an indication of what the final look will be (I've never done this before, I always just deal with each stage on its own, so let's see what happens!)

BUT! That's not all. As usual, survival in the world of art depends on versatility and constantly having your hands in as many cookie jars as possible. With that, I am also working on a comic pitch for my long-time friend and frequent collaborator, James Davidge. In tandem with the above comic project, I am also designing characters for an 8-page comic pitch, which may or may not be included as part of my assignment.


I'm really trying to play with expressive shapes on these characters and I'm enjoying the hell out of these human/animal hybrid characters. Been doing a lot of fashion reference as well in an attempt to bring some personality to my clothing choices. I wonder if my work is bordering on too simple, too cartooney, to adequately match the content of the comic, which centres around political intrigue and a murder mystery, but I won't question the process. Just go with the flow and see what happens. Texture, grit and lighting can add weight to simpler shapes, and that can be experimented with later.

We will see how both of these projects progress, but ideally, I would love to have my work with James be a creatively satisfying and beneficial collaboration, while also being able to create a comic that came straight from my brain, and experiments with emotion and comic storytelling.

So once again, I'm trying to have my cake and eat it too. I find my plate so full it's about to crack... and I'm loving it!



Thursday, June 20, 2019

"LIFE IS A SHORT DREAM"

The first reading of Life is a Short Dream is probably even better without context. With this in mind, please enjoy my latest comic and feel free to read about some of my inspiration and process below. Enjoy!


















Every once in a while, you read something that moves you so much that you are compelled to explore it visually, to wallow in its possibilities, to follow the path and see where it leads. Such an experience happened for me as I was reading Man and His Symbols, edited by Carl Jung.

Jung relates an experience with a patient who had been gifted a book of dreams by his young daughter. The events that follow, and an exploration of the dreams themselves, can be seen in my recently finished mini-comic "Life is a Short Dream". This was apparently a common Roman saying, one that happens to make the perfect title for this story.

This is one of my few entirely digital works, a choice made because of my limited schedule. It took awhile to get comfortable inking digitally once again (I'm using a 13hd cintiq these days) but I really started to enjoy it about halfway through. The ability to refine and carve away at lines using the eraser tool is such a joy and adds something unique to the process. The half-tone dots as a bit of shadow and texture is really fun to work with and I look forward to refining this look in future projects.

In an effort to make the imagery more universal, more relatable on a primal level, I tried my best to avoid Christian imagery, instead researching alchemical symbols and using lots of figure work, which was a blast. Similar to my work on Leighton Reliquary, I laid out the whole story in a full-sized dummy book, allowing more of a free flow to the pacing and layout, less detailed and precise than my usual thumbnailing process.

One of my more experimental ventures into comic-making, my intention is to leave this open enough to allow for interpretation from the reader, to bring something of themselves to this dream journey and see what they make of it. Much like dream analysis, it's a highly subjective experience that should, in theory, offer something unique to everyone, and perhaps reveal something about ourselves.

Determined to create something that meant so much to me personally, and maybe to fight off that creeping sense of imposter syndrome that tends to afflict many an artist, I put this together in a very hectic three weeks for the Panel One show on June 1st of this year (which was as much fun as ever!) It reminded me of my younger days making mini-comics and stapling them together the night before a show, back when the process seemed so much easier and getting an idea on the page seemed more immediate. It was always personal work, fly by the seat of your pants, anything goes...

It was extremely satisfying to get in touch with that feeling again, and I hope it shows.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

1ST LEGION of UTOPIA!


I can't believe how quickly time has passed since my last update... but when it comes to the art blog, no news is always good news! Between working freelance, directing at an animation studio and teaching comics from Kindergarten to College, its been a busy and exciting year. But I couldn't pass up the chance to talk about this latest project...

1ST LEGION OF UTOPIA is a comic written by my long-time collaborator James Davidge. It covers what has recently become a great source of fascination and inspiration for me: Canadian History! Americans have long had the knack for mythologizing their past, using stories to tell their history in engaging ways. Canadian History is equally fascinating, with plenty of lessons left for us to learn, and the best way to get the word out is through story.

This particular story tells the tale of the turbulent political times of 1930s Calgary Alberta, my hometown and current base of operations! It follows a character named Holly Burnside as she explores this rowdy place and meets Brian Mah, her guide through a city full of protesters, politicians, riots and dandy clubs!


On the last two Holly Burnside graphic novels, James worked with talented Edmonton cartoonist Bob Prodor. James wanted to maintain the visual consistency of her story here but Bob needed a hand with the art chores to ensure it was all wrapped up on time. So a very unique collaboration was born wherein Bob would layout the pages along with the figure pencils and inks. He would then mail the pages to me, old-school style, and I would fill in the blanks with historical Calgary locations and background figures, as well as colours. The letters would be handled by the one-and-only writer/letterer superstar, Ryan Ferrier!


I've never considered myself much of a background artist, preferring to spend time on figures and movement. But this offered me a challenge. I've never been a very technical artist either, so instead of focusing on perspective and realism, I created scenes that featured overlapping shapes and a strong Foreground, Midground and Background. My goal was to immerse the reader in these moments, to draw them in and bring the past to life. How can I lead the eye through a crowded protest scene without causing confusion? How can I use shapes and colour to create the chaotic nature of a riot? How do I use buildings and windows and figures to create a feeling of claustrophobia? 


While photo realism wasn't my goal, photo reference was a must-have, and I enjoyed pouring over old photos and searching for period furniture and decorations to adorn the world. 


In some of the pages, it is quite clear that two different artists are working together, but our intent as a team was never to have my style disappear as I copied Bob's look. It was a visual experiment of sorts, to see how our work would mesh and complement one another. I found the synthesis of our two styles to be an exciting, interesting look, that gives this book its own unique feel. The contrast between the thick brush strokes and tighter brush pen lines lend the page a lot of energy, while also bringing focus to the important characters in the midst of busy settings.


The above splash page is definitely one of my favourites. Finding a way to weave the images around the singing character was a challenge, but those musical notes and bars really helped to bring it all together. That simple colour palette was essential to keeping everything in harmony and balance...much like good music.


I love the way Bob drew the three characters in the middle panel, like they were posing for the album art of their first single. It's a fine example of that casual cool that Bob is so good at creating in figures. Check out his work on ROAD TO RUIN for more examples of that. And drawing the Legion was a lot of fun! Not to mention the Plaza theatre (see below.) Trains? Not so fun...


When working on historical subject matter, the temptation is there to do your colours in sepia, or monotone, or drowning in brown (horrible phrasing....) but you better believe this: they had just as many colours back in the 1930s as they do today. That time was full of rich texture and colour and emotion and colour is instrumental in conveying that. I was determined to activate these pages with lots of saturation and energy.


I knew I was on a tight schedule with this book, so I challenged myself to let a simple, restrained palette do the talking. Unlike my previous comic project THE V-CARD, which featured dozens of colours, layers of gradients and lighting adjustments, as well as complex shadows, I used flat colours, with barely any shading or gradients.  It was a challenge indeed, but I really learned a lot about colour, I'm very pleased with the results, and the book was finished on time (hell, a week earlier than I expected, haha!)

While I had a great collaborative team on this book, it was still a remarkable challenge to wrap up in the midst of everything. And it brings me great pleasure to say that this book was picked up by an amazing comic publisher, RENEGADE ARTS ENTERTAINMENT. They are the perfect fit for this story, because they have proven to be a publisher who truly values diverse stories from Canada's past. I greatly look forward to working on future projects with them.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this inside look at the unique process of 1st LEGION! We are launching the book at SHELF LIFE this month so if you're free on Saturday, April 20th, please join us for some laughs and some revealing insights. 

Not too revealing I hope...who am I kidding, I'm an open book!

ADDENDUM: Here's an informative little interview of James and I talking 1st LEGION with our good friend Chris Doucer of GNN! Enjoy!



Saturday, December 30, 2017

THE ROSICRUCIAN: Another Comic Tale Adrift in the Ether

SPORTS ANNOUNCER: ...and just before the buzzer, Johnson manages to sneak in one more blog update before 2017 comes to a crashing close!




I think it's important to post unsuccessful pitches online. They always hurt a little bit; taking so much precious time to create characters and a story that will never grow and mature and find their way into the hands of an eager readership. But there is oh-so-much to learn from every one!

The Rosicrucian was an intriguing concept written by my pal, and long-time collaborator, James Davidge. Filled with mystery, mysticism, romance and intrigue, it promised to be full of bizarre characters and mind-bending scenarios (i.e. the assassination of the Pope.) James went as far as to commission these pages from me, as well as the beautiful cover by Fiona Staples that graces the top of this post.


Was I intimidated at the thought of having some sweet Staples art in front of my cartoony doodles. Hell yes! But what greater incentive is there to do your very best?












Looking back on this 2014 pitch, I cringe at my lettering job, and the exploration with texture and colour, though the limited palette and lighting scheme of the first few pages carries into newer work. The apparent restraint in the figures and inks starts to loosen up towards the end, but doesn't quite achieve the buoyancy of some of my latest work.

I was so inspired by Jae Lee's storytelling for this one; clearly not in the art style itself, but in his widescreen approach. It was an interesting challenge with some cool results that I logged away for future use, specifically regarding composition and cropping.


I hope you enjoyed another story that never was! The great news is that this collaboration went well enough that James and I are forging ahead on a new comic for which we received a grant! So it's a done deal, it's going to happen! And it was this pitch that helped cement that relationship, which is just too cool for words. I'll be working on the new project this year and will release details as they appear!


It's looking like Hoth outside the animation studio today, so stay warm out there, and have a Happy New Year!