I’ve been busily working away finalising the first issue, the first of six chapters which form the initial Hollow Monsters graphic novel.

Note the change of title. ‘Hollow Monsters’ seems to encapsulate both the orignal idea, and the deeper themes that have emerged regarding the changes in society and politics, from the eighties to now. It has a lot of resonances, trivial and profound, which seem apt.

And it looks cool on the cover.

As for the interior, they’ve been lots of changes as I get the comic print ready. I always find, with any creative project, that the final five percent of tweaks make about fifty percent of the difference in how well the project works. It can turn good into brilliant, or brilliant into rubbish.

I like to show people my work and get feedback, so I’ve been printing out early copies of my comic and handing them around. I’m particularly interested in things people don’t like. Negative feedback is a lot more useful than “it was great”.  If lots of people are saying the same thing about your work there’s probably a reason, and you figure out why.  I might discard feedback after I’ve evaluated it, or take it on board. Readers tend to spot symptoms of problems, rather than the root cause, so there’s always a lot of interpretation to be done. I always have a firm idea of what’s working and not, so can interpret any feedback within this context.

Printing out the comic is really valuable for my own analysis, because it always looks and feels very different on paper compared to a computer screen. It’s not just the vagaries of the printing press, I get a different sense of the pace and  impact of the comic, and the totality of the story, when I’m holding it in my hands and reading it all in ‘reader time’.

Artwork

Overall, I feel I’ve developed a cohesive art-style capable of eliciting a wide range of emotional effects. I still maintain that artwork is my weakest skill: unlike my writing, my art is heavily influenced by many other comic artists notably David Aja, Matt Hollingsworth, David Mazzuchelli, Jock, Cameron Stewart, Joshua Middleton and Alex Raymond. Art is more of a craft for me, a carefully learned and studied skill rather than a natural gift, and it shows.  But by studying these artists I’ve been able to solve a few problems in my artwork, and reconcile different elements of my approach.

Specifically, there’s always been a delicacy and a realism to my natural style of drawing that doesn’t sit well with the heavy blacks, bold lines and abbreviation of traditional comic art. But on this project, I feel I’ve made good progress in incorporating these qualities into a workable style of my own. Despite this, I’m still not especially fond of the way I draw. My art style is still far too restrained and thoughtful, to the extent that you can almost see my mind whirring as I render each panel. But If I keep at it, I feel on the cusp of making a real breakthrough. I might even draw something with genuine artistic flair one day. Fingers crossed.

What I am very happy with is what I’m drawing (rather than how I’m drawing it). This is where the magic of comics come in, selecting the right juxtaposition of images to convey emotion and meaning as part of a larger narrative. That’s my strength I think: telling a story through words and pictures in an interesting and original way.

The remaining issues I have with my art are largely technical, but overall I think the average reader could read and enjoy the comic without my artistic deficiencies intruding.  There are some scenes that might even seem thrilling, such as the forest scene and kiss. This means that, on balance, the art works.

Inking

The inking of the comic is, when you look at it closely, a little inconsistent. But not, I hope, in a problematic way. There’s nothing here that, for me or any of the people who read the test printing, jars the reader out of the story. No-one has yet been confused as to who is who, or what’s going on. Halfway through the project I realised that it was useful to never change the brush size from 30.  Using the Belgian Brush, which I selected because of its chunky angularity, I can draw very small or large strokes at the same size. This gives a consistent and cohesive look to the inking, while retaining a fluid and loose energy. The earlier pages are, in contrast, a little overdrawn, with too much detail born of using smaller brushes at greater magnification. I went back and redrew the worst excesses of this in a simpler way, but there are still parts of the comic I’d like to draw again, and times when the two approaches don’t mix well.. But the problems that remain are relatively trivial, as far as their effect on reader enjoyment of the comic as a whole.

Colouring

The colouring in the comic works, broadly speaking. It’s not distracting in any way, helps to establish distinct scene, atmosphere and location, and adds greatly to the emotional impact of some scenes particularly the forest. Finding the balance between the muted subtle hues I was after and mud was quite challenging. The first test printing I did was too dark, so I made all the pages brighter and more saturated toward the end of the project, to get the vibrancy I wanted. Specifically I used the levels filter to brighten the middle range .25 points, and upped the brighter end .5 points. Colour saturation was increased by 40 points.

I found controlling the contrast between colours on each page particularly important. The same colour works quite differently in different contexts. Using flat colour under the inks was a good choice because its fast, practical, and quick to adjust. Having coloured different pages at different points in the year, and experimented somewhat in order to improve and progress, there was some tweaking needed to unify the colouring into a cohesive whole. I’d anticipated this in the way I’d structured my files, so it was relatively quick to do.

The forest scenes are more painterly than the interior scenes in their rendering, but hopefully not in a way that unbalance the comic’s overall look. My initial idea was to computer render the comic in a simple flat line-and-wash style, and then use more painterly effects to render certain metaphorical or emotional aspects of the story. I was unsure as to how it exactly it would work, but the initial concept work I did of the The Hollow Man convinced me it was a valid approach. In this way I hoped to create something of a new style, a visual language, something that would be distinctively my own. This was a case of proving out something visually, through artwork, rather than intellectually figuring it out. I’m still not sure exactly how it works, but it does. That’s the beauty of art. You see differences in the detail and style used to render characters and background a lot in animation, cartoons and comics. There’s obviously something going on here which warrants further investigation, in respect to how the brain differentiates between people and environments, but for now I’m simply glad that it happened.

I started with a good understanding of the way comics work, but studying on this Masters took that to another level. Partly this has been a process of proving or thinking through how some of the formal aspects of comics work, and the ramifications thereof, rather than relying on the instinctive knowledge that they simply do work. But I’ve also uncovered a treasure trove of comic scholars who have influence my thinking a great deal. I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed studying comics academically, and how much I learned as a result.. I absolutely adored every minute of the assignments, so much so that I seriously considered giving up making comics to become a full-time academic. The perfect world would be some kind of balance between the two, perhaps. What’s great about this course is being able to study, discuss and draw comics at the same time as making them. There’s an exponential correlation between the positive impact of both activities. Ideas that might only occur by creating comics formed the basis of many research essays, and discoveries made through studying comics informed my approach to drawing and writing comics.

Forest Scenes

Capturing the mood of the forest was really important to me — a huge part of why I wanted to make the comic in the first place. There’s a feeling of gentle timelessness, and space, evoked by the play of light through the canopy onto the forest floor. It’s tricky to capture because in reality the sunlight blooms over the darker areas before your eye adjusts to take in the range of light available. So you have to evoke that moment of brightness before the bloom happens, something akin to a HDRI feel, without swamping the image in such a way that renders it unreadable or distracting. It’s really just background forest mood music, establishing mood and atmosphere without becoming distracting. For that reason I used a lot of focal blur and silhouette to allow the forest to recede in prominence.  I also blurred some of the foreground leaves for effect, on the last panel of page 13 and the panels 3, 5 and 6 of page 19, to aid focus. I get a nice sense of the swaying leaves and dappled sunlight from these pages, which is what I was after. Reader feedback tells me that this forest sequence is the most popular in the comic, which is great because much of the comic occurs there.

The idea is that forest is a liminal space between the order of society and anarchy. A gang of small kids who spent much of their free time down there together, free of adult supervision, become free to devise their own rules, relationships, and reality. The correlation between our behavior and sociopolitical events over the subsequent decades is stark. At the very least, it forms a good sub-text for the graphic comic.

I took hundreds of photos of The Dingle, and made two new trips there over the year to look around. I toyed with a very literal rendering, but decided in the end that it was more important to evoke how it felt and looked in a credible way. The area that we used to call The Lagoon (p17) for instance, a flooded pool of water where streams met amid islands of clay and trees, is really quite small when you look at it now. But as a child, it felt lush, exotic and foreign. To get the equivalent thrill now, I’d have to travel to Sri Lanka and bathe under a water fall or something. My rendering of that location therefore channels the reality of my childhood experience, rather than the physical reality, while remaining subserviant to the character and dialogue which dominates the page.

Strictly speaking there are still  too many different colours in the comic.  I could have simplified the colouring further, had I coloured it all in the same week or were I starting again from scratch. But I doubt many readers would notice, or care, and there’s a danger of overworking issues that don’t have any significant impact on the end result.

Avatars

Conceptually, I experimented with a literal visualisation of how Jay was feeling and the effect reconnecting with Pippa had on him. This involved rendering him as a hollow shape full of broken glass. As a metaphor, it’s quite powerful though perhaps a little obvious. In particular, I found that over an extended period it became fairly wearing and laboured, particularly in respect to the other glass shattering metaphors I use elsewhere.. I liked the idea, but wanted to use it more subtly. For this reason I retained just two panels with the technique, at the beginning when Jay introduces the story as narrator. Hopefully this raises some intriguing questions about who Jay is and how he came to be this way.  It help to get readers intrigued enough to read on.

I think, later on in the forest scenes, an attentive reader will pick up on Jay’s motivations, the relationship between how he’s feeling, the location, the past, and Pippa, without it being spelled out via broken glass. It’s a better comic for that.

A natural focus for anyone drawing a comic is the rendering of avatars. One thing that emerged from my studies is how far the reader’s idea of who a character is doesn’t rely on their visual appearance. (I could throw in an essay to back this up, but this isn’t the time or place.) If you take Harvey Pekar’s work as an example, a very strong impression of who Harvey is emerges from his writing: his language, and his pacing. This ID remains firmly rooted irrespective of who draws him, or how they draw him, whether it’s the cartoony reductionism of Hunt Emerson or the detailed ‘realism’ of Chris Weston. Some of renderings look like Pekar, and some don’t look like him at all (Robert Crumb has done both). It doesn’t matter – it’s always feels like the same character. The upshot is you can be a lot freer with how you render a character’s avatar than many people realise. This allows you to make some interesting storytelling choices, without ruining the all important clarity of the story.

The first time you see the older Jay he’s a nebulous silhouette of glimmering glass shards. The second time he’s a rhino.  There’s an old saying that to be a writer you need the soul of a poet and the hide of a rhino, which influenced my thinking here. The publisher is a cat, a somewhat selfish and manipulative animal with whom we share a dependent  relationship. As the page progresses we see that Jay is drawing the story we are reading, even as we hear it being cancelled by the publisher. We enter this story through the comic panel, and see a more handsome and human version of Jay despairing as his project crumbles. He’s drawing his own version of the comic in our hands on a Cintiq, and as he pleads for his livelihood we again enter the comic we’re reading through the next page which gradually fills the screen.

So who is the real Jay? Is it the rhino, the guy in the studio, the forest, or the kid playing jelly monsters on a Vic-20? I’ll let the reader decide. The point is that any rendering an author makes of himself is inherently subjective, a version of himself, carefully designed to serve the narrative through omission, caricature and exaggeration. I’m pleased with how these pages make that secondary point without any interruption to the natural flow of the story. The narrative purpose of these scenes is to simply put the protagonist under pressure, as his creative and financial world crumbles. True character always emerges under pressure, not to mention the reader empathy evoked by witnessing the protagonist’s distress.

It’s a theme which continues in later scenes, some of which I’ve drawn. Rather like the glass effect on Jay’s avatar in the forest scenes, I removed these pages from issue #1  because they seemed rather unsubtle and unnecessarily literal. Less is more.  I intend to use these pages later in the story, when I can embed them into the story in a more nuanced way.

The biggest problem I had on the comic was drawing kids. About half way through, it started to click, but the redraws I did of earlier work are not seamless. If you go back and look closely, you can see some inconsistencies, but based on reader feedback these are not signigicant enough to be picked up. In short, no one has noticed. In general, I therefore conclude that the drawings of kids fulfil their intended purpose, eliciting the emotions and meaning intended. On occassion, the odd expression or posture in the second half of the pages drawn, they’re even quite good. I feel like I’ve figured out how to do it now.

I realised after struggling for a while that the problem was I had no exact age for the kids in the story. There’s a huge difference in how an eight year old looks, compared to a six year old, or a four year old, or a twelve year old. The rate of growth is tremendous at that age, and the changes quite profound.  I was writing about my childhood, a jumble of memories from about five to twelve. After a while, I realised the crucial period was 1982.  Tying the kids into 1982 gave me a concrete body shape, face, and fashion to work forwards and backwards from. I was able to draw with a lot more confidence from that point on. It started to click, and the protagonists finally came to life with enough animation to make the story engaging.

Story wise, I’m happy with the structure and the clarity of the script. Much of the relationships, subtext, and thematic content remains pleasingly implied – which is essential to good work. I think on a couple of occassions some of the dialogue is a little too quotidian, and I will tweak a few scenes futher down the line to add a little more credible humour and energy.

 

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