Monday, September 27, 2010

Sabbatical, Day 44 (The Last Day, sorta, kinda...)

So I wrapped up my sabbatical Sunday having (finally) finished inking Page 14. With ten more pages left to ink, not to mention the lettering, the cover illustration (in color!), and the actual assembly, I've still got some work cut out for me. The plan to have everything completed by the time I appear at P.I.X. in mid-October is still in place. It was suggested to me by a coworker that I hold to my deadline, no matter what, and I agreed then and now.

Still and's where the going gets a good bit rougher.

I planned my sabbatical months in advance, so I'd have time to work on the book and not kill myself. I even tried to leave extra time, in case I got behind, which was ultimately the smartest thing I could have done. I'm meticulous, I know, and I want - no, I need this to be the single best effort I've ever produced. So yes, I'm a little bit farther behind than I wanted to be. And I'm starting to feel that squeeze now.

But I'm also very pleased with the work produced thus far. And it is a lot of work.

I've always said that given the time, I could work on a professional schedule, and I pretty much did that, completing a page a day for pencils, and a page a day for inks, both on average. The only two days I took off completely came at the end, for my birthday and the day after that. Otherwise, I worked on HERO CORP. artwork every single day, and a number of those days were very long indeed. So I proved to myself that I could measure up professionally with the time needed. And I believe that once everything is assembled, I'll prove to the world that, yeah, I kick tail on a professional level.

Regardless, starting in just a few hours these will be even longer days for the next couple of weeks, as I attempt to complete inking a page a day AND putting in a full work day at the office. I can feel the stiff muscles already.

My only fear is that I don't want the quality of the inking to suffer due to my own fatigue, but there's not much wiggle room at this point, so I just have to man-up and get it done, hero-style.

Thanks to Wayne for six weeks of tolerating non-stop creativity, or mania depending on how one looks at it.

Thanks to Kristin for six weeks of providing the perfect diversions, with exquisite timing.

Thanks to Jami & Brian for taking on extra shifts so I could keep the ink beneath my fingernails. (Although I expect a cut of those overtime checks.)

Continued thanks to the Lord Almighty for giving me a degree of perseverance that even I don't understand most of the time. But I keep on believing it's with a purpose, so we'll find out where it's all headed in time.

Alright. More to come!

Today's Music: There was music...? It's all a blur at this point...!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sabbatical, Day 40 (Happy Birthday to Me!)

We interrupt this sabbatical to bring you this special bulletin:

Today is my birthday. Number 40, to be exact. So here's how we celebrate, hero style...

...sorta speaks for itself, I think!


With great power comes great responsibility.

Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot.

In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight...if I'm paying attention.

To fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way.

Ladies with the initials “LL” will almost always try to snoop out your secret identity.

Men with the initials “LL” will almost always try to kill you.

Not all toxic waste or radiation is bad…

…But use extra shielding against Cosmic Rays.

…And if someone is reckless enough to stray into the blast zone during a Gamma Bomb test, leave them there.

If you exceed the speed of sound, you’ll cause a sonic boom.

If you exceed the speed of light, you’ll go back (or forward) in time…and if it’s a time period you already lived in, you’ll become an intangible phantom…and when you return to your own time, you’ll go back to the age you were when you left.

No matter what you do, you can’t change the past.

Establish a secret base of operations. Give it a really cool name.

You never know when you’ll have to evacuate the planet – so if you’ve got the technology, invest in Space Arks.

It takes a special person to lift the hammer.

Sidekicks can get killed too.

Correlation: No one’s dead ‘til you’ve seen the body. (And even then, poke ‘em with a stick.)

Correlation: Never expect to come back from the dead. If it’s meant to be, it’ll just eventually happen...

The smarter the criminal, the less time they spend incarcerated.

When all hell breaks loose, listen to the egghead scientists.

Things that most people think are worthless can sometimes increase in value immeasurably.

The good guys and gals don’t kill.

Be ready for the press to smear the hero’s name.

However and wherever you store your gear – utility belt, web-shooters, secret hidden pouches, etc. – keep it stocked and loaded.

Continuity is EVERYTHING.

Make fun of your enemy, even when the fight is hard. It’ll drive them crazy.

Nothing brings back an audience…
………………*wait for it*
… like a cliffhanger ending.

Things usually get cancelled just when they’re becoming interesting.

If you can’t fly, learn how to run really fast.

If you can’t be strong, be smart.

Sometimes, but not often, smashing things is the only way to solve a problem.

Even heroes need a support system.

The greatest super-power is strength of will.

In the end, you want your heroes to be happy.

One thing I do know for sure, and that is you are here for a reason.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sabbatical, Day 36 (Tireless in Pittsburgh)

Being tireless in Pittsburgh is dangerous, especially in the winter. Our roads get pretty bad if you ain't got good treads.

That was a little joke. 8^)

*yawn!* But no, seriously folks, I've been logging in a bunch of hours on this book, and I'm not done yet. I've done something or other on HERO CORP. EVERY SINGLE DAY of my sabbatical so far. I say this not to brag, but to make sure it's understood, this has not been a vacation. I've enjoyed the time immensely, but it's truly been a working vacation, from start to almost finish. In one week, I'll be trying to calm my nerves enough to go back to my day job with some sense of coherence...even though I still won't be done with the artwork. By my estimation, I'll still have somewhere between 4-6 pages yet to ink, not counting lettering pages, creating the cover, and assembling the final book.

It's going to be a busy few weeks. Here, let me share a quote I love with you:

"What distinguishes a great artist from a weak one is first their sensibility and tenderness; second, their imagination, and third, their industry.” - John Ruskin

I am in complete agreement with this statement, including the order of traits. I'd like to focus for a moment on the third quality - industry - and also discuss HERO CORP. itself in more detail. We'll call this next part "Industry & The Hero"

*     *     *     *     *     *
In the Hero Corp. Universe (also known as the H.C.U. or the Marcel-iverse), The Pro is the most well known and highly regarded meta-agent on the planet. Everyone knows of him, and his presence is inescapable. Most folks love him, some fear him (and rightly so), nearly all respect him. He's like the Michael Jackson of the hero set, and he has a lot of roles to fill.

He's the planet's protector, first and foremost, New Pittsburgh's most famous son by far, the de-facto leader of Earth's super-folks (at least the law-abiding and enforcing ones), and essentially the public face of HERO CORP. itself. He accepts all of this with a gracious smile and is diplomatic, for the most part. But behind the scenes, his confidants know an informal secret: he HATES his employer! All The Pro wants to do is be a hero, and all the company wants to do is make money.

It doesn't stop the Samaritan of Heroes from doing his best, but it makes his job more tiring. It's hard to tucker out a guy who only sleeps one day a week (The Pro, not me, in case you were wondering), but it wears on him, this endless responsibility, both social and fiscal. And for those of you unaware, The Pro is based on me, so I have a very clear idea of who and what he is...but I have to say, at this point, he's also a completely separate entity from me. There are areas where he behaves in a much different fashion than I would, both good and bad. But this much is true: I admire his industry.

The Pro is tireless, and he wants to save the world and everyone in it. As an employee, he causes a lot of headaches to upper management and the Executive Directors (at least the ones who don't "get him"), but I view these as the kind of headaches a good employee should stir up. He's always pushing H.C. to be better than it is, in imaginative ways that often buck-up against the bottom line. He cares about people first, not profit -- but he can afford to. And he realizes that's not an option to most of the other employees at his company.

The Pro has industry, and I respect him for that. I find it funny that I created a character based on myself who in turn inspires me to be better than I am. Kinda head trippy, I know.

The Pro typically sleeps on Sunday, and I suppose I should follow suit. I really hope this first entry in the saga of these characters lives up to what I'm promising you all, and that it finds an audience.

I suppose it will if stock in my own industry stays strong.

More to come...!

Today's Music: The Hi-Frequencies, Harry Connick, Jr., Go-Home Productions

Sabbatical, Day 35 (The Zen of Delineation, Part Two)

Before we jump back on the train of thought from the previous blog, you may be well did that two-page spread turn out?

I finished it at an ungodly hour, but I couldn't stop until it was complete. I was experiencing flow like you want to when you're at the drawing board, so I just let it happen and went for broke. Once I was finally broken (but completely satisfied!), I turned in and slept 'til well past Noon. Damn shame, right? I woke up, walked into the studio, found Wayne sitting at his art table, and he looked at me and said:

"Okay, before I say anything else..."

...then he stood and applauded. Wow. That absolutely made my day, and verified that I must be doing something right with my ink brushes!

You know what else made my day? In response to my early-morning facebook declaration that this was the best comic-book art I'd ever produced (which is something one should always strive for, but rarely had I felt that so strongly), my dearest Jami posted a comment telling me she's proud to be my sister. I read this just prior to Wayne's tribute, and it almost made me cry.

But I'm a man, so I sucked it up. Now, let's jump back into the time-machine and journey to my first experiences using an ink brush.

*      *      *      *      *      *

Oh God, I hated it.

Not so much the actual using of the brush, but my inability to control it the way I wanted to. Mind you, having gotten the best tutorial I could have ever asked for from Don Simpson, my first few brush-inked pages were far better than they would have been on my own. But everything just wasn't clicking. As I discovered, brushes have a life and mind of their own.

My previous inking tool of choice had been quill pens, and I hadn't come close to mastering those - heck, the first time I started using them sans instruction (partly because I missed a LOT of school growing up), I used the nibs upside-down! - but I was familiar and comfortable with them. Pens give you direct resistance against paper, much like pencils. There's the tactile sensibility of a pen, quill or technical, that makes me understand why artists would gravitate to it. You can feel the ink going down far more directly, and you know what your basic line weight will be.

Brushes on the other hand are all about user control. You have to have nerves of steel to get lines the way you want them. My favorite artists demonstrate a precision that you would think is impossible, once you understand what they're doing. It's deceptively simple, what Don Simpson and so many others do, and I just didn't have that kind of control. The linework and cross hatching the brush yielded him would have fooled anyone after-the-fact into thinking he'd drawn with a pen. His comfort with it was stupefying. My own...not so much.

In my defense however, I was a quick study and I was determined. There were periods when I'd revert to pens, and I even invested in a full set of technical pens which are still in use twenty years later. (I always suggest spending the money on good art supplies -- they'll pay for themselves in time.) But I used the brush Don gave me a whole lot. I don't know how long he owned it before passing it along, but I gave it enough usage to wear the barrel loose and chip the paint. (Mind you, I also babied that thing. I cleaned and shaped it after every use, and I still have it tucked away, in retirement.) And I studied art styles from artists as varied as Darwyn Cooke, Terry Austin and Robert Crumb.

Over the years, a host of brushes of varying sizes, gauges, weights and shapes have been charged with bringing my visions to fruition. One thing that remains constant though is when you're having a good moment while inking, things begin to flow in a way that doesn't compare to pencilling. (And remember, I say that as someone who primarily considers himself a penciller!) It's much more about being in tune with the tool. It's Zen-like.

When I started inking HERO CORP last week, I was having internal panic-attacks. After a month of pencilling, I wondered if I had any business with a brush in my hand. It was scary, the prospect of having taken time off from work to devote to this enterprise, and possibly ruining all of that with my sub-standard talents. Was my ego (which is beyond considerable) going to allow that to happen? Yes. because I trusted that all of these years of practice hadn't failed me. They had not.

I ended up very, very pleased with that first page. I believe I solved the mystery of space, at least for this issue. The second page found me experimenting with complimentary tools and bringing out the pens. (The quill pens were too rough for this board I'd drawn on, so I knuckled down and spent four hours cleaning my trusty tech pens to make them operable again.) Those feelings of unease bubbled up again, until it was complete, and I'd stepped away from it for a while. Each successive page felt better and made me more confident.

There were many moments I was in such Zen-like flow that I forgot what I was inking while it was under the brush. Images that I had myself drawn tightly and purposely suddenly were devolved into lines and areas requiring delineation into negative and positive spaces. It was amusing though. It was a different headspace to create art in.

But pages 8 and 9, my double page FIRST double page spread...I knew something special was going to happen there. My single greatest strength as a visual artist is my sense of composition, and I designed these two pages for maximum impact. The story itself has a momentum that pushes you toward this scene, and when you arrive...let's just say, you'll feel the BOOM! I believe everything, the story, the characters, the concept for the art, the layout, the tools and the experience all led up to the best pages of art I've ever created.

I made some magic with my own two little hands. So I suppose I owe my father one for making me do my own drawing, way back when. Of course, he never got me that Johnny West action figure I wanted we're even.

The Train of Thought reminds you to make sure you have all your baggage as you disembark. Thank you for travelling with M.L.W. -- please read with us again!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Sabbatical, Day 34 (The Zen of Delineation, Part One)

I remember when this used to be a daily blog. *sigh*

I have been busy though. (Excuses, excuses...) I just finished inking page seven, and after finally taking my shower and getting something to eat, I'll also attempt to complete my double-page spread. If I can get it done today, that will make it my highest productive day since this sabbatical began -- a whopping 2.25 pages in a day! We'll see though...I'll keep you posted.

This last week, I've spent more time at the drawing board inking than I have in years, and the specifics of this aspect of the craft have been pinging around in my brain. Being a comic-book creator is a lot like being a doctor, in that there are so many specialties and sub-specialties to work in. I suppose I could be considered a general practitioner, especially on a project like HERO CORP., where it's a one-man show.  My specialty would be pencilling, and it's a toss-up what my sub-specialty is: I love writing and inking, and am likely as adept at both. But I must say, I feel more comfortable writing. Because inking is weird.

The joke is that inkers trace. (Thanks Kevin Smith. The laughs never stop with that one...) And there are a number of artists out there who just essentially trace. Many of them don't get it, many of them are hacks. But a skilled inker is the one who brings polish and permanence to the artwork. Inking, delineation, finishing, whatever one wants to call it, is the most permanent part of creating comics. You commit ink to paper, and for the most part, that's it. And depending on your comfort level with your tool of choice, the commitment will either enhance or detract from the final piece.

Many artists don't even ink anymore, employing a system of "digital inking" which essentially means darkening and cleaning up the pencil artwork before adding color. (This isn't counting the artists who produce fully rendered comics, either traditionally or digitally painted. That's an entirely different blog.) I have mixed feelings about digital inking, because I've seen a mixed bag of results over the years. Traditional inking, which establishes the "look" that is mentally associated with comics, was born out of the constraints of print technologies roughly a century ago. Those constraints have all but evaporated over the past twenty years or so, mostly due to the emergence of digital print systems.

I mention all of this because, to be frank, no one HAS to ink a comic book these days. It all comes down to a choice of aesthetic. Artists must ask themselves a  host of questions, ink-luding(!) the practicality of inking. Are they skilled enough to do it consistently? And if so, do they go traditional or digital? If traditional, what's your tool, pen, marker, quill, technical pen...or brush?

I chose the brush years ago. And I'll tell you why.

Cover of BIZARRE HEROES #1 (1994) - Art by Don Simpson
When I was 18, I had the good fortune of sitting in artist Don Simpson's studio for an afternoon, as he explained and demonstrated some techniques of the trade to me. I'd never actually seen a working professional, and the experience of those few hours was ultimately as valuable to me as all the concurrent time spent at art school. The single thing I gained the most insight on from watching him was the precision and artistry of proper inking.

Don Simpson is a masterful inker and his linework was killer, delicate at one end of a stroke, and bold at the conclusion. And watching him wield a brush just made it all come so perfectly clear. It was hard to believe he was able to make that brush do what he did. He also used quill pens and related tools to do fine detail and such, but it was the brush that came to life that day. He gave his art solidity, which had never fully sunk into my brain until then. This was something I had to do.

Cover of VIGILANTE #1 (1983) - Art by Keith Pollard
Don explained to me that artist Keith Pollard had done the same for him years before, and concluded the day by giving me one of the brushes he'd demonstrated with. I was beyond thrilled, and immediately set about the task of using this new tool to work similar magic on my own artwork that Don had worked on his. After all, I knew what to do now, I'd seen it done, and I had the brush that I had watched work magic.

But do you remember the theme of mystery from my previous blog? The thing about the best mysteries is they can often be layered enigmas, bringing you headlong into another question. I thought I knew what to do with that brush -- Don had made it all look so easy, and I had been attentive. He'd unlocked a key secret in my transition from comics-creating novice to aspiring professional. I thought the rest would be relatively easy.

I was wrong.

More to come after the two-page spread...!

Today's Music (so far!): Barry White, George Michael, Vivaldi, the Electric Six (Yeah, I'm eclectic.)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sabbatical, Day 28 (Mystery and the Artist)

Yes, I know, it's been a while since my last post. Sorry about that. I've been busy...and as a result, Friday I finished the final page of pencils for the story.

So here's what we've got so far:

Not bad. But I had an internal debate over whether to show this to you. It all comes back to my thinking on Mystery and the Artist.

When I was a kid just starting to read comic-books (some thirty-five years ago), I didn't at first understand that there were human beings behind the scenes creating them. They just existed, and the characters within the stories were more real to me than the writers and artists who made them up. Then I would ask my father to re-draw my favorite panels from the comics, and it dawned on me that real people drew this stuff. And when he finally said the magic words...

"Why don't you draw this one?" became fully tangible: I could create comic-books. Myself. With my own little hands, I could be a magician.

Sometime down the road I realized that if I wanted to practice my storytelling skills, I needed actual stories to tell. Out of necessity, I began writing, and took to it all well enough that I never felt a need to search for a partner. All throughout this strange journey, I collected and read tons of comics. And they were a mixed bag of genres and creators...I read everything from super heroes to funny animals, to Archie comics, to monster comics (even when they scared me enough to leave them outside!), to Richie name it and I read it.

But the creators, specifically the artists, always remained a mystery.

I read all of my own comics, even when I was very young. And I'm sure I built up an association of styles and characters with specific artists early-on as well. I read comics in their entirety, including the credits and letter-columns. Once I knew people made comics, I wanted to know about the people who made comics. Needless to say, I had a lot of Superman comics in my collection, so I became intimately familiar with the work of Curt Swan. But when I stop and think back on the names of artists who I learned to recognize - Rich Buckler, Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, Don Newton, Jim Aparo, John Buscema, Gil Kane - I understand where my storytelling sensibilities came from.

But as acquainted with their styles as I became, I didn't know the creators at all. They were names and art styles and feedback and my own perception, and that was all. When I first read Stan Lee's ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS, it was my true introduction to the work of Steve Ditko, who's art I was familiar with in passing - I recognized his style - but I knew nothing of him. I certainly didn't grasp the significance of his being the first artist to work on Spider-Man. I had no idea of his importance in the comics-creating community. I had no idea that he'd already been around for a while at that point.

I also had no idea that of all the artists who have worked in this field, Ditko achieved the highest coupling of acclaim and mystery. He's the J.D. Salinger of comic-book artists. But I liked Ditko's work. And I aspired to do what he did.

There was something mystical and intriguing about this notion that what you were behind the scenes in comics truly didn't matter. You could be anyone and be a comics creator. You could be anyone, of any background, and be a STAR in comics! How wonderful is that? Where else do you get that form of freedom?

Another artist Lee praised was Gene Colan. I was very familiar with his name and work, because of his idiosyncratic style, dark and twisted, naturalistic and distorted all at once. (I found out years later he's one of very, very few artists who shades his pencil artwork. That may not sound like a big deal to most people, but if you're an inker working over his pencil artwork...that's a TREMENDOUS deal.) I mention Colan because he'd been around forever at that point, and to this day is still out there in the world, making comics.

Yet, until fairly recently, I never knew what Colan looked like. He never had an age or a history...he had his artwork. And it was amazing.

Another aspect of creator mystery is the actual genesis of the work. In this day and age of instant gratification, it's not uncommon to see a work in its earliest stages, and be able to follow it through to completion. (Not just my chosen media -- movies and television shows are also guilty of this.) A number of artists seemingly thrive off of the instant feedback, which is understandable. Comics aren't performance art, and they exist without the degree of audience interaction of a musical or acting or dancing performance. Creating comics is a solitary profession, but if you can upload a work-in-progress and share it online, that comes close to creating an instant audience.

Except the problem there destroys the mystery.

I haven't had a new comic out there in the world for more years than I care to mention. And now, working away in the midst of creating a story that challenges my skills in every way possible, I can't wait to show off what I've got planned. I'm channeling everything I've got into this, and have shown some people bits and pieces of it all in progress. But that's all I'm giving away for now: bits and pieces.

I want my readers to be surprised with every single aspect of HERO CORP. -- the writing, the art, the sheer momentum of the story, and what I believe to be its uniqueness. I want the people who have characters in this book to still be taken aback when they see what they're actually like. I want it to feel instantly recognizable and completely new at the same time.

I set monumental goals for myself. But it all begins with me knowing when to pull back, shut up...and tease you all.

I want to maintain the mystery.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Today I returned to Page One, held a brush in my hand and began to ink this book. (Today's Music: The Rolling Stones, starting with PAINT IT BLACK!) Inking is weird because it's permanent. Spreading graphite over paper is one thing, because that can be changed anytime. But inking represents total commitment to the art. As mentioned before, I'm no speed demon, and every single brushstroke I lay on the page is mightily considered.

And this page started with a LOT of ink -- the very first thing you see in this story is an establishing shot from outer space. You might think, space should be easy to render, right? Just throw a lot of black ink down, add a few stars, and you're done. Except nothing could be farther from the truth.

Space is the ultimate mystery. It's full of color, and depth, and light. If you're just throwing ink down and calling it a day, you're missing a Hell of an opportunity. And a true artist should never shy away from the opportunity to make magic with their own little hands and explore a great mystery. When done right, it can strip the artist of personal history and age and everything else that doesn't matter.

The only thing that matters is producing amazing artwork, and making a reader scratch their head and contemplate how you did that. Give them a mystery on paper.

But I also like to here's that first page. But in pencil. After all, I don't want to give anything away just yet.

What's the fun in that...for both of us?

More to come...!