The piece of beautifully rendered art you see above was created by Katie Shanahan. I spent pretty much all of the ECCC weekend exhibiting and hanging out with her and her brother, Mr Steven “Shaggy” Shanahan, and it was a blast. The Shanahans siblings are so kind they put a Delilah Dirk cover on this ECCC exhibitor map, but totally left out any of their own comics. What?
Together they make the comics Shrub Monkeys and Silly Kingdom, and they are each well worth your time. Silly Kingdom 2 will, I believe, be ready for TCAF! Meanwhile, I can prove Shrub Monkeys is a big deal because it is mentioned in the dictionary.

The piece of beautifully rendered art you see above was created by Katie Shanahan. I spent pretty much all of the ECCC weekend exhibiting and hanging out with her and her brother, Mr Steven “Shaggy” Shanahan, and it was a blast. The Shanahans siblings are so kind they put a Delilah Dirk cover on this ECCC exhibitor map, but totally left out any of their own comics. What?

Together they make the comics Shrub Monkeys and Silly Kingdom, and they are each well worth your time. Silly Kingdom 2 will, I believe, be ready for TCAF! Meanwhile, I can prove Shrub Monkeys is a big deal because it is mentioned in the dictionary.

Emerald City Comic Con

Were you aware of it? I am exhibiting at good ol’ ECCC! You can find me at table 308, right next to the Dark Horse booth, sharing a table with Toronto’s most charming cartoonists, Katie and Steven Shanahan,

What do I have for you? SMILES. MANY SMILES. And dedicated copies of The Turkish Lieutenant, as well as travel poster prints. It’s the only place you need to go (as long as the only thing you want to buy is Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant).

Using Photoshop’s “Black & White” adjustment vs. rough blue line art.

When I draw a thing, I often first draw it rough using Col-Erase™ blue pencil. Then I go over top and make it look NICER using a dark pencil.

I used to remove the blue pencil from the image in Photoshop by selecting the “blue” channel of the RGB scan and turning that into the line art. That was the old way! This is the new way, and it is better!

Look at this drawing. This is what a raw scan usually looks like. See the faint blue lines in there? Ick.

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This is what it looks like when I select the blue RGB channel:

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PROBLEM:

It’s pretty effective, but not a critical hit. I can still see faint traces of the blue lines:

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Normally I wouldn’t worry about it. I’d just blow ‘em out by increasing the contrast (through the Curves or Levels adjustment). BUT WHY SETTLE FOR THAT?

SOLUTION:

I don’t know when Photoshop introduced the Black & White adjustment tool, but it’s my new best friend. Let’s make a Black & White adjustment layer above our raw scan.

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You’ll get this fun palette popping up:

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… but you’ll still see the faint blue lines. They’ll be in black & white, but they’re still very visible. HOLD ON, that’s because we haven’t DONE ANYTHING yet.

CLICK! I select the “Blue Filter" preset:

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Now look where those blue lines used to be:

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You can even jack the sliders up to make your old blue lines look BRIGHTER, which is no big deal because our goal in the end will be to make that light-grey that used to be my white paper actually look white.

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I’ma add a Curves adjustment layer.

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Fiddle with the curves til your paper surface is white and your lines look about as good as they can look:

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YOU CAN STOP NOW IF THAT’S ALL YOU WANT. Here’s some bonus shizz. I’m going to show you how to make the most useful line art you can have. Go to the Channels palette and command-click (or CTRL-click if you need your instructions to be that specific to your own personal life experience) the RGB channel’s thumbnail:

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You’ll get a selection in the shape of your lines. Important : INVERT SELECTION. Don’t “invert” the contents of the selection, use the INVERT SELECTION menu thing or just press command-shift-I. Then make a new layer to accommodate your line art:

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Fill the selection with your colour of choice:

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Ta-da! You have useful line art. Why is this more useful than simply setting your line art layer to “Multiply?” Well, give it a try and see if you can’t come up with your own reason. Or just trust me. It’s MORE FLEXIBLE.

Enjoy!

A few Delilah Dirk 2 “character designs.” (Because really, they’re more costume design than anything.) I’m particularly proud of the old dude; the second image.
I spent most of December resolving character design needs. V.1 of the book is done and is in my editor’s elegant, well-manicured hands. While I’m waiting for feedback, I’ve been trying to lock down character and location designs. Must start working on actual pages soon.

Making Comics and The Feedback Loop

It’s an inherent problem that pops up when working on any long-term creative project. It’s true for movies, for video games, and in my case, it’s true for making a graphic novel. There’s a great discussion of it in this episode of the Giant Bombcast podcast; basically, as you are making Your Thing, you are having to make many very important decisions, and you will not know the outcome of those decisions for a very long time. If you are a comedian or a musician, it’s easy to know how people will respond to your work. If you’re up there on stage, based on the response from the live crowd of humans at your feet you can have immediate feedback as to whether or not the decisions you’re making are working out as intended. Presumably, if you are a comedian, people will laugh. Presumably, if you are a musician, people will fall to the floor as great heaving blobs of emotion. Music success!

I’m working on a graphic novel, Delilah Dirk and the Blades of England (or Delilah Dirk 2, or just DD2). I am making decisions right now about the story. I want the story to make people laugh and to make people fall to the floor as great heaving blobs of emotion. The problem is, it’s going to take at least a year for me to complete all the final artwork for the book, and then a whole bunch of additional time for the book to go through the publication process. Will that happen? Beats me. It’ll take two years to find out.

This is disadvantageous. I would prefer to know whether my story is being effective right now, not only so I can adjust it if it’s failing, but also so I can take those lessons and apply them to other projects.

Additionally, I’m trying to move through the production of this comic quickly and efficiently. I know there will likely be spots down the road where I will make revisions, but I’d rather do as much work as possible ahead of time. After this rough-pages stage, each page is going to be a lot more time-consuming to produce. I’d rather make fundamental story changes right now, while mistakes are cheap and quick to change, and where it’s easier to get an overall perspective on the story. The alternative is that I end up doing a bunch of expensive re-drawing of final art.

I want to cut through that two-year gap in the feedback loop, so I’m taking a couple extra weeks to make my rough page drawings clear and presentable. I’m making the text legible, cleaning up the borders, and where the drawing is not particularly readable, I’ll clarify the drawing. I’m not sure at what stage of the process real comics people do their lettering and balloon layout, but right now I want some feedback on the story and how the comic is reading, so I am cleaning up the whole thing now in order to present it to a few trusted readers. Maybe my editor if she’s lucky.

I could simply enlarge my rough drawings — blow ‘em up to 11 x 17” and start drawing the final art, but I’d much rather take the time to finish this intermediate step for all the benefits it provides.

Perhaps this page isn’t the best example. It already reads relatively clearly, except for the text, and I don’t usually take the cleaned-up rough to as clean a state as seen below (that Delilah panel is a real exception — drawings are usually much rougher than that). Nevertheless, you get the idea. I’m taking something borderline-illegible and making it 75% more presentable.

The border sets the proportion for the page, and is an “average”of the North American First Second page dimensions and of the French Akileos page dimensions that were established with Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant. Eventually these pages will all get printed out on paper in blue ink, and that’s what I’ll use as my rough to start completing the final line artwork.

More importantly, though, these pages will be combined into a PDF so that I can present the entire graphic novel to someone and they will be able to read it in a more-or-less complete fashion. Their reactions and feedback will be used to both improve the story and reduce the anxiety I have about groping blindly down a dark hallway of production, not sure whether the product I’m working on is going to hit its narrative target. I’ll be able to move forward secure in the knowledge that my comic is effectively crippling people with laughter and emotions.

The value of a good editor.

This past week, at NYCC, I had my first in-person, in-depth meeting with Delilah Dirk 2’s editor, Calista Brill, about that book’s story. We made the appointment about a week in advance. That was… not a stressful week, per se, but I was not sure what to expect. I had given her my complete script a few weeks prior. What would she think about it? How extensive would her concerns be? How much of the book would I have to re-do? I had already pitched the book with a detailed outline, which she had approved and (as I was to learn later) enthusiastically shepherded through the publisher, but still - you never know, right?

Perhaps you are wondering exactly what an editor does. I know I often have. If you’d like to hear it all straight from Calista’s mouth, watch this video.

Going in to the meeting, I was worried about a few things.

  • There are a few sequences that I worried were superfluous or trivial but that I really liked for the sake of character development, or colour and tone. I worried that they could be interpreted as distracting or diminishing from the tightness of the story. I wanted to keep these sections.
  • A section in the middle of the story felt like a big dip and plateau in the pace and development of the story. It was a swampy section in the middle of a racetrack. I was struggling to figure out a solution to this problem.
  • One of the characters was carrying a tone and performing actions that didn’t seem quite right, but that I thought might be an amusing or interesting way to take the story. I felt… uncertain about it, though, like it was playing a slightly off note, but I didn’t know why or how to fix it.

So we met, and I hauled out my thumbnails and notes and roughs. I quickly stepped through the parts I had already cut, got into the thumbnails a little bit, and walked us both through the roughs up to that point. I called out some areas I was concerned about being unnecessary, which I think universally received a positive response.

Eventually, time was pressing, and I think I was getting antsy to find out if there were any big beefs that Calista had with the story. As it turns out, there were two points she had that were concerning her. And this is why you want an editor:

The two issues that she mentioned were both things that I immediately recognized as problems that had been sitting in the back of my mind. Since they weren’t up front, I was pushing the story in ways that were not as constructive as would be ideal. She made two simple statements that, as soon as I heard them coming from someone else, I recognized them and could deal with them constructively.

Let’s see if this analogy makes sense: I wanted to build a road from Vancouver to Seattle. I was going south. So far, so good - that’s generally the right direction. I was showing you the sights along the way, too, but maybe around Bellingham there was a hill in the way, and I deked left, then right, not quite sure which way to go to get around the hill to Seattle.

I think in that video interview, Calista mentions that an editor’s job is to help an author figure out the best way to tell the story they want to tell. Something along those lines. I thought, “yeah, that is a good explanation,” though secretly believing there’s an element of blue-sky idealism to it.

Well, Calista and I blew a damn hole through the middle of my metaphorical Hill of Bellingham, and I’m happy to say that DD2 is now on a clean, straight path to Seattle. (Someone get me a metaphor award please.) One of her concerns was something that, if I addressed it properly, would nip the mid-story monotony in the bud. And that character-tone thing that was bugging me? The solution to the mid-story problem would help resolve the character-tone issue, among other things. I brainstormed some solutions, threw them at her, we chatted, did some more brainstorming, and at the end of only an hour and a half, I was feeling much more confident about the story. That’s important, because can you imagine spending a year-plus on a story about which you have weird little uncertain concerns?

Yes, I have some re-writing and re-shaping to do, but I would much rather spend a little time doing that than I would continue forward on a lengthy production, all the while worrying about whether the story is “landing right” and doing what I want it to.

Here’s a better analogy: as you’re putting together your story from puzzle pieces of your own imagining, maybe you don’t even know what the picture on the box looks like. A good editor will come along and reveal that box-cover to you, or remind you to look at it more closely. Maybe you enjoy putting puzzles together without knowing what they’ll look like, but not me. Of course, early on in the process, there is a lot of not-knowing-the-picture-on-the-box, but as soon as you have enough pieces in place, you may still need that extra insight to come along and reveal the part of the box you had accidentally covered with a slice of cold pizza.

Does all this editor-praise is going to seem sycophantic? Hopefully not. I’m legitimately grateful to Calista for her insight and constructive criticism, because not only is the book going to be better for it, but my anxiety level for the next 14 months is going to be much lower.

I wish this post had been edited by Calista. It probably would have been half as long and twice as meaningful.