When Chris invited me to do a guest post on my Prophet #33 backup (which you can read here: sloanesloane.com/labyrinth.html) I thought ‘well that’s easy enough, I’ll just throw together a little walkthrough on how I made my comic’. This thought was immediately followed by ‘wait, that’s boring’. My actual comic-making procedure is pretty straightforward, I sketch out ideas, pencil layouts, ink, color and then letter just like everyone else.
Now I’m going to take a few steps back and try dissecting my creative process from conception to execution, which is something I get asked about quite a bit. ‘What inspired this? How did you think of that? I could never come up with something like that.’ The answers are long-winded but the process is simple. Inspiration is not magical or hard to attain and creativity is not a gift. Inspiration is the breathing in, the consumption of things you like. Creativity is the exhalation, what you decide to do with what’s inside of you. Simple yet complex cerebral procedures. Here’s how I work:
Even though I only had a few pages to work with on this project I didn’t want to skimp out on having at least the semblance of a story for the reader to chew on, especially after they’ve read a whole diabolically entertaining issue of Prophet. There’s nothing inherently wrong with silent comics or plotless vignettes but I wanted to push myself. I usually start to conceptualize ideas by sketching or writing out words or ideas I want to explore.
For this, the first words I wrote were:
aliens (DUH), sickness, intestine, prison, constriction, chase, parasite, escape, polyps
Which I then ruminated on and revised as:
A sentient intestine-like cave alien functioning as a prison/warden observes a pair of human inmates flee from their parasitic correctional officers and attempt to escape.
That’s paraphrased of course but there’s the story. The only thing I decided to changed was focusing on one human inmate instead of two. Bill from Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blowup sums up the conceptualizing segment of my process the best: “They don’t mean anything when I do them. Just a mess. Afterwards, I find something to hang onto, like that leg. Then it sorts itself out and adds up. It’s like finding a clue in a detective story.”
I don’t worry too much about theme or meaning when I’m creating my comics as they usually develop naturally over the course of the comic’s development and in a way that is not too ham-handed. Besides switching around a few story elements, I prefer not to edit my stories so they fit any certain narrative paradigms or run them through any monomythic meat grinders. I mostly just ignore these pesky ‘universal patterns’ altogether. I’m human. I make human stories. That’s all the universality I need.
Next step is usually cogitating on scenes and page layouts. I don’t thumbnail often because I can never get the sense of time when I look at them though I will sometimes thumbnail specific panels to better their composition. Otherwise I prefer to just vaguely pencil and work out the layout on the 11×14 page I’ll be inking on. This doesn’t take very long and I only revise layouts once I’ve penciled all of the pages that compromise the scene that page is in. In this case I penciled them all first. Character and setting design also happens simultaneously during this step which usually just involves a lot of visual reference research and sketching until I like something. The first thing I drew was this:
Then I jumped straight into roughing out my pages in blue pencil which is basically a lot of boxes and squiggles that represent people. Paneling (or not paneling) is obviously a critical part of comics but I tend to obsess over it, probably more than I should. Masamune Shirow and Dino Battaglia’s beautifully composed panel compositions were a big inspiration for this. Panels need to be attractive and directional but overall they need to be invisible. They are the bass player of comics.
I try to remember that panels convey time and time influences emotion. Music is temporal by it’s very nature and so I tend to gravitate towards thinking about the dynamic between emotion and music when I approach paneling. “… the heartbeat follows musical rhythm. Stimulating music increases the heart rate and sedative music reduces the heart rate.” (Nordic Journal of Music Therapy) Rhythm is an intrinsic part of us. Panel content and size controls duration and the visual tempo of each page manipulates the emotion of the reader. A flurry of small staccato panels are evocative of a heartbeat and well-used negative space on a page will sometimes make us hold our breath as our eyes move over the page, searching, absorbing.
Once I have my scenes, layouts and shots established I start to ink. During this time is when I start to think about the writing. I usually jot down notes on my sketchbook pages and pencil in empty bubbles as placeholders. A few rather arbitrary narrative goals I latched onto in this story was narrating from a non-human perspective, developing a character which you never truly ‘see’ and world-building without exposition, keeping the narration personal.
The story itself developed from my own fascination and horror with the human body and illness. The sentient world that the prisoner finds herself in basically mirrors her own body, magnified a thousand fold. She swims through cavernous veins, walks across embryonic bridges and falls into a smoking field of twitching polyps. She is suffering the Droste effect of being consumed over and over again, experiencing something similar to her own viscera, well, viscerally. The physical boundaries of the alien and the prisoner are blurred and she finds herself caught in a liminal state of being: inside and outside, infection and infected, freed yet still trapped.
There’s also the quality of identity dysphoria as we spectate ‘with’ the Warden and observe the movements of the prisoner who thinks she is heroically escaping from a monster. To the Warden, the prisoner’s motivations and goals are essentially meaningless and puzzling, feelings which the Warden’s narration forces us to consider while we watch and try to identify with the only character we can completely see, the prisoner. The Warden and prisoner both consider one another utterly abject, foreign organisms forced to exist in the vulnerable spaces of each other’s bodies.
I also find it important to pinpoint what things I’m pulling from and why, to insure I’m distilling the concept I want to its purest form. Without the conscious clarity of what I’m after visually or narratively, it usually leaves me with something that’s not all the way there. It’s lukewarm, diluted. The intent is there but not the full execution which can be frustrating and disappointing for myself and especially the reader. For this comic I was thinking of the solemn horror and claustrophobic isolation of Ingmar Bergman’s film Hour of the Wolf, Cronenberg and Lynch on body horror, Tomomi Kobayashi’s color palettes and AM from Harlan Ellison’s short story I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.
At this point, the atmosphere felt like it needed to be soberly disconnected and no one does that better than Asano Inio. The pacing of the narration in Asano’s Nijigahara Holograph is bleakly austere and slow moving in a manner that adds to the morose atmosphere of the story, which fits quite well with my initial Bergman inspiration. I thought that mood and pacing fit with the Warden’s ability to be omnipresent, observing and reflecting on the decisions her prisoner makes and solemnly predicting her next moves before she makes them which adds to the almost funereal feeling of her journey.
And that’s it*. Hopefully this was a little more interesting than your usual walkthrough post and if not I at least hope it encourages other artists to scrutinize and share their creative processes. And of course be sure to pick up Prophet #33 at your local store or online if you can!
* Other notable steps in my creative process I neglected to mention: worrying, procrastinating, anxiously drawing and throwing out pages and notes, staring into the abyss of the internet, throwing things, worrying, e-mailing friends for their opinions, worrying, working on other things to take my mind off what I should be doing, e-mailing my friends to make sure they’re not just being nice about it and, lastly, worrying.