Friday, September 16, 2011

Lowlife: The Deal Part 2: Details, Details

My version of Hondo Cit  from Lowlife: The Deal Part Two.
Lowlife/Hondo Cit © 2011 Rebellion/
Hondo City Created by Robbie Morrisson and Frank Quitely
Lowlife created by Rob Williams and Henry Flint
No workee
No eatee
No pay mortgage
Sleep on streetee 

-The Freelancer’s Lament

So, the problem with making comics - one of the many problems with making comics - is time.

I spent most of 2010 living in Greece, which is a lovely place, friendly people, terrific climate, but a bastion of the Protestant Work Ethic it is not. Where the Spanish are famous for saying “Mañana,” (wait till tomorrow), the Greeks say “Theftera,” (wait till Monday). And while I find it hard to decry a philosophy that always gives you the weekend off, it did make it hard to concentrate on the distant Anglo-Saxon notion of deadlines, especially when there were so many nice cafés to try within a one-mile radius of our apartment. At the time I was working on Lowlife: Hostile Takeover, which I’d been told needed to be done by October 2010, with no intervening deadlines set. A blissful state of affairs, I thought at the time, except it turns out I need the Fortnightly Fear to keep me motivated.

Coming back to the UK in August last year to find myself tight on time and low on funds, I settled down and started dragging myself back onto the fortnightly schedule usually allowed for 2000AD episodes. All went pretty well until the start of December, when I was meant to start work on SVK. A whole set of unfortunate circumstances - schedule clashes, Warren being unwell, me being unwell - plagued production, and a deadline that had been pencilled in for mid-February ended up being pushed back till early April.* Aside from the loss of income that involved, I also received my biggest-ever tax demand, based on the year I’d received a big wodge of royalties for the Absolute Sandman: Kindly Ones.

*Thus causing series 4 of Stickleback to be delayed, if you were wondering where that had gone.

So, when I started Lowlife: The Deal, I was climbing back once again onto the episode-a-fortnight wagon, and financially running on empty, so I pretty much just had to get down to it. The result is that the first few episodes of Lowlife: The Deal were done in, not exactly a rush, but at the limit of my recovering stamina. And under those circumstances, something has to give.

What usually goes first is not drawing quality, but thinking time; that extra half-day to mull on an idea, find the best angle on it, the spare hour in the schedule to re-draw a panel or add some neat extra detail you’ve just thought of. When I look at Part Two of Lowlife: The Deal, that’s what I see; the missed opportunities.

Mick McMahon's double-page splash panel of Texas City from Judge Dredd: The Judge Child
Judge Dredd © 2011 Rebellion/2000AD
Judge Dredd created by John Wagner and Carlos Sanchez Ezquerra

Take that big splash panel of Hondo-Cit on page two; in a lot of ways I’m pretty pleased with it. I wanted to come up with a singular vision of Hondo; my solution was to swipe an idea from Mick McMahon’s* classic double-page spread of Texas City from the Judge Child saga; incorporate symbols of the culture into the architecture. So my Hondo-Cit has buildings in the shape of Samurai warriors, Geisha girls and Samurai swords; a buddhist temple and pagoda-shaped towers. I also recycled my unused Christmas-tree style VTOL airport design from Lowlife: Hostile Takeover. I think the drawing does a fairly good job of getting across the scale of the city, and the fact that it’s not Mega-City One. Where it falls down a bit is on what I call significant detail.

*To be fair, McMahon drew it, but I don't know if he or writer John Wagner came up with the idea.

A densely-detailed cityscape from Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira
© 1988 Katsuhiro Otomo/Akira Committee
What’s the difference between significant and non-significant detail? The easy way to explain is by showing. Take a look at this first panel, from Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo. It’s a beautiful piece of work, densely packed with detail, but the detail is all impersonal; buildings, windows, no people, no signage. Manga is designed to be read quickly; the idea is to give you a strong impression of dense urban clutter and the on to the next panel. This detail isn't intended to slow down the eye or be studied in itself -  therefore it’s non-significant.

From Geof Darrow's Comics and Stories
© 1986 Aedena & Geof Darrow
Now take a look at this panel from Comics and Stories by Geof Darrow; although Darrow is an American, this book comes from the Franco-Belgian storytelling tradition, one in which the stories are generally much shorter (and/or slighter) than in Manga, but the pace of reading is meant to be slower. Here the detail is on a human scale, more personal, with lots of figures, each one an individual and remarkable character with their own actions going on, legible posters on the wall, and in-jokes such as the train with the front-end of a 1950's American automobile. Detail is used to make the eye linger, with rewards for those readers who return for a second look. This is significant detail.

I did manage a bit of significant detail on that Hondo-Cit splash; there’s a little tribute to Osamu Tezuka’s Tetsuwan Atomu (Astroboy) in the advertising figure atop the building bottom left, and down at the bottom panel you can see a Godzilla-style monster chained to a truck on the highway. But I didn’t have time to go through my Manga collection and collect cool buildings from the worlds of Katsuhiro Otomo and Masamune Shirow to drop into the backgrounds. I’m still kicking myself for not having the Phoenix from Science Ninja Team Gatchaman/Battle of the Planets or Battleship Yamamoto landing at the airport. And most of all, I lacked the time to contact any of my Japanese-speaking friends to supply joke text for the Hondo-Cit signage. As it is, all the Japanese text in the first five episodes is taken from Basho’s famous Haiku The Frog:

An ancient pond
A frog jumps in
The sound of water

But I didn’t come up with that particular wheeze till after I’d finished the page.

And that’s the nature of the beast, as a comic artist; do the page then let it go, there’ll be another one along in a minute. Not that I wouldn’t backtrack to fix a major error (like the time I forgot my main character had lost an arm), but overall? Let it go. Living with a certain level of disappointment comes with the job; I think of the great comic artists who’ve influenced me, and it’s true for them, just as much. I once read an interview where Mike McMahon dismissed his classic Judge Dredd stories as cluttered and difficult to read; in another, Euro-Comics titan Jean “Mœbius” Giraud could find nothing better to say about his strip-that-literally-changed-my-life Les Yeux du Chat than “there was some good architecture in it, I suppose.” I have heard stories of the great John M Burns sorting through piles of his gold-standard comics pages, despairing of finding anything good enough to put in his portfolio.

Baggage retrieval at Hondo-Cit
Airport: I was quite pleased
with this panel.
If you’re going to make a living in commercial art, the ability to draw is just part of the story. If you’re to have any sort of peace of mind in the world of regular deadlines, you have to have the confidence to believe that the odd failure is part of the mix and won’t matter in the end (and sometimes the thing you’re embarrassed about is someone else’s favourite bit). There’s no relationship between actual talent and the level of self-belief; if anything, the better an artist, the more likely they are to be tortured by self-doubt. This explains two phenomena common in the world of comics; the brilliant artist who only churns out an issue once every three months, and the apparently dreadful artist who inexplicably gets tons of work - the latter because he can always hit his deadlines. To all brilliant guys who are held back by self doubt, I can only say how thankful I am; I’d never have established a career in comics if you’d been able to churn it out.

If this is all starting to sound a bit grim, I’d like to end on a positive note; when I was looking back over episode two for this blog there were a few pleasant surprises; the facial expressions on page one, the scribbly flashback effect on pages three and four (which worked better in print than on screen) and the robotic luggage carousel (and porter robots) on page three. It’s just very difficult to judge your own work per se, more so when you’re still so close to it.

Ask me in a couple of years, I’ll probably give you a different opinion.

See you in the funny pages.


Proudhuff said...

You do amazing work and keep the wolf from the door give yourself a slap on the back...
or as a trubadour recently sang: Stop! don't be so hard on yourself, its not good for your health.
and remember: your worst is better than their best, as me old mucker Jo Callis would say!

Unknown said...

Inspiring words.

I put more detail than is necessary into my sequential art, and I seem to pleased with only a portion of it - embarrassed by the entire thing. I've thought it was all part of the process, see your flaws and keep constructing but constantly having the fear that you'll be "found out" as someone who's not actually very good at drawing. I got a highly negative review recently which kind of knocked me on my arse - I knew I wasn't very good, I'm not so accustomed to people telling me that!

You're blog is an inspiration, and your recent interview in the Meg even more so. The amount of thought you put in to every panel - amongst the self doubt there is supreme optimism and confidence in your method.

It's reading this that makes me get up off my arse and keep trying.

Matt said...

I f*cking love your work.

So there!

(Good article, BTW. Cheers.)

Matt Badham

Deirdre de Barra said...

Prog 1752 has just been shoved through the letterbox. Your cover is sheer brilliance!
Thanks for the honest article, nowt I can do about the 'detail-demons' in your head, I'm just glad that Dirty Frank is back and being drawn as only you can :)