On Drawing a Graphic Novel

On Drawing a Graphic NovelI’ve got fourteen hundred words to talk about my experiences drawing The Sons of Liberty. What I will be talking about really though is a year and a half of my life. More specifically, a year and a half of my life in comics. To do that I need to talk a little about my love for comics. To work in comics you cannot be sane. One needs to wear many different hats. You are an illustrator, a graphic designer, and, to add some filmic terms to the mix, director of photography, fight choreographer, lighting director, all the way on down the line. It is daunting to receive a script full of descriptions and dialogue and be told to bring it to life visually. To work in comics one has to be half mad and more than a little overconfident. You sleep less, put on weight, take weight off, up your caffeine intake, develop back problems, and begin every single sentence with the words, Why are you disturbing my creative genius? The best part? Those are usually the good days. And you fall in love with them. But you rage against them while you are in the middle of them, and miss them when you have some time away from them. You forget how to act without having a deadline breathing down your neck and the publisher banging on your door looking for artwork. Then one day you look up bleary eyed from drawing with two weeks’ worth of beard growth on your face—the reason your fiancée refuses to come near you because your face is tearing the top two layers of skin off her. Tell her it’s a new way to exfoliate.—and see through bloodshot eyes that the wall above your art table is filled with page after page of art.

On Drawing a Graphic NovelYou learn during this whole process. I try to teach my students that we are constantly learning. That the moment you stop learning is the moment you stop living and you may as well just keel over because you are of no use to anyone. What you learn while working on any project is how to streamline what works and what doesn’t. I have a very specific way of working. My first step after I read the script—when I’ve stopped crying in the corner and screamed that this is impossible and why someone couldn’t just resurrect Jack Kirby to draw the damned thing—is to thumbnail the entire book from start to finish. Thumbnails are simple gestural sketches that give a first pass at a book cheaply for the price of some pencils and typing paper. Then, after I sit down with my editor and writers and go over the thumbnails and get everything approved, I begin the roughs. Roughs are tighter sketches based on the thumbnails. I draw about five pages of roughs at the start of the week, and this represents my workload for the rest of the week. I will then take those five pages of roughs and blow them up to full comic page size, about eleven inches by seventeen inches, and begin working on my final pages. When I’ve finished penciling for the week, I shoot everything over to my editors who go over the work with a fine-toothed comb and tell me whether I need to make any corrections. Once I do, I am free to go to inks. When I’ve finished inking, I send everything back to the editor who then sends it off to the colorist and letterer respectively. Then I begin the process all over again. I do five pages of final pencils a week, averaging about six panels a page which gives a total of thirty illustrations a week. Multiply that number by twenty (the average number of days spent working in a month not counting weekends) and we get a grand total of six hundred illustrations a month.

The best advice I can give … is to ignore ninety percent of what is said about your work. The comments that will stick with you are the ones that mirror what is going on inside your own head, and therefore are the ones worth listening to.

Those six hundred illustrations are the reason I am constantly doing finger stretching exercises. They also make you extremely honest with yourself. You know when you are not putting everything into your work. A half-assed drawing begins to stand out on page after page of illustration. That is not to say that every drawing will be brilliant and deserves to hang next to Michelangelo’s Pietà. But like anything else, you will get out of comics what you put into it. The only difference is you have a fan base numbering in the thousands willing to tell you when you suck. Keep in mind those same fans will argue to the death who will win in a fight, Superman or the Hulk (Superman hands down. His exposure to earth’s yellow sun gives him a power set greater than the Hulk’s exposure to one form of radiation—er, yeah, ahem). The best advice I can give on that is to ignore ninety percent of what is said about your work. The comments that will stick with you are the ones that mirror what is going on inside your own head, and therefore are the ones worth listening to.

When you finish a project of any kind of scale, you have a feeling of accomplishment. The feeling of satisfaction for me is going to come when The Sons of Liberty is released in May. At that point I can hold the final product in my hands and show the work as a whole to people who have asked me constantly what I have been working on. The lessons I’ve gleaned from working on the first volume, I’ve been applying to the second book in the series and have already begun to pay off. I will say this: the hardest lesson to learn was how to find a balance between working and living. That equilibrium can get thrown off very easily when that stretch of creative flow hits and the brain is firing on all cylinders and you look at the stack of drawings that lay before you and you know without a shadow of a doubt that you can knock the whole thing out right now. Ride that streak, because that energy leaves just as quickly as it comes, but remember to enjoy other things outside of work. I’d almost forgotten what I was missing until I did something as simple as take a walk outside.

Now I sit a year and a half later working on book two, fighting with drawings and computers, drinking endless cups of coffee, spending hour upon hour at the drawing table not shaving or sometimes not dressing —hey, I work at home and my pajamas count as clothes—and feeling occasionally shocked at what I see when I look up at my wall and it is covered with page after page of drawings. I love comics and every minute I spend in them.

The article appeared in the Spring 2010 print issue of LINEA.


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