Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Relevant Reviews: How To Make Webcomics and Comic Book Lettering

As I've mentioned before, we're trying to transition The Adventures of Wyatt Earp in 2999 from "unusually formatted book nobody wants to take a chance on" to "webcomic that's ideally composed for widescreen monitors and won't cost anyone anything to read."

In addition, I'd like to try my hand at lettering the strip. For one, I've always been fascinated with comic book lettering (but never quite had the patience or penmanship to do it by hand). But it would also divide up the actual manhours of work a little more evenly between Josh and me, and I could even redialogue at the last step in the process so's I could expand, contract, or move around dialogue as the art demands.

However, I hadn't the wherewithall to do either of those things yet, so I took my Borders giftcard and bought me some how-to books.

How To Make Webcomics ($12.95) is written by Brad Guigar of Evil, Inc., Scott Kurtz of PvP, Kris Straub of Starslip, and Dave Kellett of Sheldon. These are all popular webcomics, and I believe each of those strips is able to financially support its creator as a full-time job (which is not where my head is at right now, obviously, but it's good to know).

What's nice about the book is that they assume you can already draw, and while there's chapters on writing and character, this isn't Creative Writing 101. This book assumes you can basically put a comic together, which is fine and dandy because we already have (although I always enjoy hearing people talk about the craft and process of writing, even if the book focuses, understandably, on gag-a-day comic strips rather than something like Wyatt).

The book is mostly focused on what I needed to know about doing webcomics, which is basically everything else -- technical/business aspects like website design, advertising (from both sides), monetizing, branding and buliding, where to secure hosting and a domain name and how much you should expect to pay for them, and so on. There's also chapters for things that are still a ways off in the future (i.e. merchandising, and there's a really great chapter on putting together a book), but are still good to be thinking about now.

One thing I appreciated is that they tell you how to start out, but also how to expand and improve once the comic is established. They tell you how to run a startup, and how it's different than running an institution like Penny Arcade, and everything in between. They recommend product-on-demand services like CafePress when you're dipping your toes into merchandising, but suggest abandoning that as soon as it's feasible because the profit potential is so low. Forgive me if this is obvious, but I was entirely clueless about this sort of thing.

Because the book has four authors, they take turns doing individual chapters, but chime in with their thoughts and contradictions during. They're all chummy, so there's no rabid disagreements, but they lay out a bunch of different options and suggest you pick the one that works best for you. It really drives home that there's more than one way to do this.

I got the book because it was highly recommended, and I was not disappointed.

Comic Book Lettering the Comicraft Way by Richard Starkings and John "JG" Roshell ($9.95) is a little more of a letdown, though. They take you through very basic tutorials and a few short essays on lettering theory and method. There's a very nice bit about how word balloons should flow to draw the eye around the page.

To be honest, though, this book is really padded. There's two original short stories in it (one by Jeph Loeb and Ian Churchill, and one by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen) that show you examples of Comicraft lettering in practice, but I mean, I read comics. I have hundreds around the house, many of them actually lettered by Comicraft, that I could use as reference. I'd have preferred more step-by-step instruction. Frankly, since Starkings writes a monthly comic with the characters used in the examples, it all just comes off like advertising to me.

It's a useful book, all right, and I don't regret the purchase. I just wish Starkings & Co. had put together a definitive book on the art and craft of lettering instead of a 64-page book of "tips and tricks" with ads for fonts and comics.

Also: This is a character who appears on the cover of the book as she is drawn by Brian Bolland...

...and that same character as drawn on the inside by Ian Churchill.

Bolland draws characters with character, while Churchill is a little unclear as to how pants and boobs work.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Objets d'art: "The Groceryman"

In lieu of Monday's usual Sideburns comic, I thought I would share something special with you.

In doing Sideburns, I have decided to focus my art into a specific format: namely, a black-and-white, four-panel weekly comic. But sometimes, an artist (or, indeed, an artiste) creates something that cannot be bound by convention, something that cries out for its own unique presentation.

These objets d'art (literal translation from the French: "This is not a dart") are anomalies when compared with the rest of the artist's body of work, but because they are formally challenging, they are often more rewarding.

The Groceryman, Justin Zyduck, 7.75 x 11.5, blue dry-erase marker on whiteboardI have here for you an example of such a piece that hangs in my home. Take a minute to really breathe it in.

This is the whiteboard where my wife and I make the shopping list. The "Chopin list" pun is, of course, delicious, but let us draw our attention to the figurework.

He transcends expectations; he contains contradictions. His wisened face (those are supposed to be jowls around his mouth, not a mustache) contrasts with his muscled physique. His long, flowing locks contrast with his male-pattern baldness. His elaborately detailed torso contrasts with the arms I couldn't be bothered to draw properly. His gruff, devil-may-care expression is juxtaposed with the mundanity of reminders to buy milk and the peanut butter with Omega-3 in it. What does he signify??

Frankly, this started out as a drawing of George Washington without reference, and it kind of got away from me. When the guy from the phone company came to fix the line the other week, I flipped it over so he wouldn't think I was some kind of weirdo.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Superhero anthology comics for the 2010s: A proposal

This is a post about superhero comics anthologies. This doesn’t have to do with anything regarded to Wyatt Earp, or indeed anything I have any control over or input into. You may indeed wish to skip it. It’s just a typical fanboy kind of thought I had while eating my lunch and reading this post at Comic Book Resources’ Comics Should Be Good blog.

Now, fans always say they want anthologies, but they rarely sell well. The relaunched Marvel Comics Presents lasted just 12 issues about a year back or so. I think this is because modern anthologies tend to lack strong lead features. Look at the Adventure Comics in that blog post I linked to. It’s Adventure Comics Starring Superboy, or Adventure Comics Starring Aquaman, or Adventure Comics Presents Dial H For Hero. MCP was headlined by two serials: one about someone or something called Vanguard, and one about someone or something called Weapon Omega. Neither of those had strong name recognition, and the talent wasn’t the kind of name draw (your Grant Morrisons and Brian Michael Bendises) you need to lure in comics fans, an audience notoriously reluctant to take risks, to an unfamiliar property.

(Out of fairness, though, I should mention MCP did have a rad Hellcat serial by Stuart and Kathryn Immomen that got a fair amount of word of mouth.)

So how would you do a successful anthology today? All the specifics (creators, characters, titles) I’ll use here are just examples. I’m going to use Adventure Comics as the title just because it’s in the post I linked to, and I understand DC’s doing a relaunch of that title. But this could very well be applied to Marvel as well. The point is, it is a mainstream superhero comic idea.

You make Adventure Comics a 48-page, $3.99 book, or whatever the price point is going to be for 48-page books now. I believe this would give you something like 32 pages of editorial content.

You set aside 16 pages for a lead, and that lead should be something with a lot of name recognition, but perhaps a property that’s not always a sure seller. For the sake of an example, let’s say the Legion of Super-Heroes. They’ve been around forever, and DC usually seems to feel they should be publishing it in some form, but they don’t always seem to be able to support their own book. You get big-name talent on it—a consistent team, not a rotating one. Get Geoff Johns to write it, because everybody wants him to (and I’m reading Legion of Three Worlds, and it’s the first thing I've read by him that I’ve really enjoyed). You can get a big-name artist on it, too, and that’s the great thing—with the reduced page count, it will be easier for that artist to keep a monthly schedule.

So you treat the lead feature just like you would any comic series, except the individual installments are shorter. These aren’t vignettes or character pieces, and they’re not little out-of-continuity miniseries. For all intents and purposes, this is DC’s ongoing Legion of Super-Heroes comic, full of all the subplots and action you’d expect to find in a book with their name on it.

Next, you set aside eight pages for a consistent back-up feature in the format of a six-issue serial. Again, this should be a character with name recognition that hasn’t been able to carry a book in awhile—Aquaman or Captain Marvel or the Metal Men or somebody. Now here’s the gag—you make the creative team for this feature even bigger names than your lead. You can afford to do this because of the short page count. JG Jones apparently can’t draw 22 pages for seven months, but he could probably do eight for six months, right? Grant Morrison and JG Jones do a dynamic, redefining Aquaman story in serial format with cliffhangers and everything (Morrison knows his old-school Doctor Who, so he should know how to do this). At the end, you’ll have a nice 48-page story you can repackage in a prestige format. And then you get Neil Gaiman and some rad artist on Captain Marvel or something for six months, and so on.

The last eight pages are one-offs. You can do the character piece vignette if you want to, or you can introduce a new character or reintroduce an old one who’s going to be showing up in Teen Titans soon, instead of devoting a whole one-shot special to him/her beforehand. This would be a good place to showcase some new art talent you’ve got, or try out an story by a newcomer writer—even if it doesn’t go over well, hey, who’s going to complain when they’ve already gotten through the two top-talent lead features?

That’s the pitch. Two things would be necessary to make the book work—one, writers and artists would have to condense their modern storytelling techniques to make each 16- or eight-page installment “worth it,” and you’d really have to hit that monthly deadline, because eight weeks is a long time to wait for eight pages. But I think this would be economically viable, and I think it’s what fans mean when they say they like “anthologies,” even if they don’t necessarily articulate it that way. It may even be what DC’s planning to do with their new Adventure Comics title, I don’t know.

Hey, looks I wrote longer than I meant to. But you know how it is being a comics geek; you get an idea about superheroes in your head and you just start to ramble.

NEXT TIME: How to spearhead a Battlestar Galactica-style reboot/revival for Charles in Charge.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Sideburns #15: "NSFMS"

After two restrained weeks, it's back to text-heavy excitement

For extra credit, they could write an essay examining the history of the Batsignal, with and without the yellow oval

I don't really have a shirt like that, but I wish I did; the new Friday the 13th was pretty decent

Okay, this is kind of a tired old point by now, but this just kind of brought the whole thing up again

Lo-fi webcomics by Justin Zyduck. Every Monday.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Wyatt Update Feb. ’09: The Internet Will Save Us All

Hey, look! Actual content related to the topic that gives this blog its name!

The reason we haven’t been posting many updates is … well, because there hasn’t been a lot of progress lately on The Adventures of Wyatt Earp in 2999.

I don’t mean, however, that work on the comic itself isn’t coming along. Josh is still producing pages. I chain him to a drawing board and keep a watchful eye over him whilst sipping lazily from some sort of rum-based drink that comes in a coconut half-shell, periodically shouting vague orders like “Ink harder!” and “More pizzazz!”

But enough time has passed since our original submission to say that at this point, we’re probably not going to be picked up by a publisher.

The widescreen/landscape format has always been a sticky wicket, as I’ve mentioned before. I’m not claiming that’s the only reason the book hasn’t been picked up (although I am claiming the only reason I am not a starter in the NBA is because I'm 5-foot-9), but it’s an irregular format for printing, and all the retailers we’ve talked to hate landscape books from a business standpoint because they don’t stand up well on a standard comic rack. If you’re a comic book publisher and there’s thirty other submissions by similarly unproven commodities in your inbox, I imagine it’s real easy to say “no” straight off the bat to the one that’s going to give you some trouble.

And that was before the recession/depression/whatever you want to call it.

Josh and I both read about Diamond upping its minimum orders, and you might have too. There’s talk (although I don’t know how accurate it really is) that the Previews catalog is basically going to be cut in half. Unfortunately, this will probably not mean fewer catgirl statues from Japan where you can take the skirt off and maybe the bikini top too, but will rather result in fewer small-press books getting distributed. So self-publishing is not looking good, although with the hellacious costs involved in printing and distributing your own comic, it did not look totally awesome to begin with.

But wait! I heard a rumor that some creators are putting comics up on the internet! Is this true? If only there was some portmanteau for comics which can be read on the Web! Netpanels? Interzines?

Yeah, Josh and I are planning to jump on the webcomics bandwagon. We’ve already got the “pilot” story up on Comic Space and Webcomics Nation, but I’m talking about a serious, formal effort here -- our own website, a professional layout and interface, archives, a regular schedule, everything. Now I’m a guy who loves print comics, and it was a real thrill to actually be able to hold a comic we made in our hands and give them to people. But considering that the technology is readily available, there’s a proven market for it, and that producing a regular webcomic costs a small fraction of what printing up a single book does, it is damn attractive. True, it doesn’t bring in any money in and of itself, but I read something (I forget where) where a webcomic creator said something to the effect of “Nobody was buying my comic anyway, but at least this way people were reading it.” Too true, person whose name I forget!

And that horizontal format? Somewhere over the last couple years everyone started making widescreen computer monitors, and I have only just caught on that this is very much to the benefit of viewing our comic online. One page filling the screen, with no scrolling down like you have to for traditional vertically oriented comic books.

Also, the format of the individual stories is particularly conducive to web reading. I don’t really like webcomics that tell an extended narrative but only put up maybe one page a week. Unless you’re really pacing the narrative to work as standalone “units,” I find it’s unsatisfying. If you read one page a week and it’s this one, it’s going to be a disappointment -- it’s atmospheric and beautifully drawn and works really well in context with the other pages, but on its own it’s just three panels of some mountains and grass and a crashed spaceship.

Comics like Warren Ellis’ FreakAngels, on the other hand, put up “episodes” of several pages a week. Hey, after the pilot, our comic is structured into four-page episodes! It is as though we planned it like this all along. Of course, weekly’s probably not an option on our schedules unless we win the lottery, but perhaps biweekly or monthly. I feel like a longer wait is acceptable as long as when you do finally get new content, it’s a complete story.

This isn’t going to happen right away, because we don't want to be those guys who put up a half-assed webcomic for three weeks and then give up. I’m researching the “how to” of webcomics (good lord, they even have books that tell you how to do it!), and I’ll have to get webhosting, and probably find/hire somebody to design a modest but decent-looking site. This will also give Josh some lead time so at some point we can get on a regular schedule.

I am long-winded and have taken enough of your time with this update. Perhaps we’ll chat again about this soon. If anyone has any advice or suggestions, by all means leave us a comment.

Thanks, y’all.

Sideburns #14: "Color Scheme"

I did not make this conversation up; I *could not* make this conversation up

Yeah, my wife is enough of a girly swot to love pink

Okay, I wasn't actually reading at the time, but that's pretty much the only artistic license; also, I was wearing glasses, which I'm still not sure I'm gonna start drawing

I think it makes it funnier when the composition remains the same from panel to panel for some reason, but I really hate drawing stuff like that over and over again

Lo-fi webcomics by Justin Zyduck. Every Monday.