Friday, October 19, 2012

Lowlife: Saudade Part One

Cover for 2000AD Prog 180. Click to embiggen.
A full step-by-step breakdown of the making of this cover is available on 2000AD Covers Uncovered
Lowlife copyright Rebellion Developments Ltd/2000AD.
Lowlife created by Rob Williams and Henry Flint.

So, back in the saddle for another Lowlife!

(If anyone’s wondering what happened to the new Stickleback series I tweeted about a couple of weeks ago, have no fear, I’m working on it now; 2000AD often commissions material months in advance, so Lowlife:Saudade represents work I did between February and June this year).

One of the delights of working for a comic you read yourself as a child is that sometimes you get to draw stuff you remember fondly; thus I was happy to find myself working on a story set in the Dredd universe’s moon colony, Luna-1. Although I wasn’t a regular Squaxx until Prog 86 (when Starlord merged with 2000AD), I picked up the odd issue here and there (often on day trips) and there seems to have been a little cluster during Dredd’s tour of duty as Marshall of Luna-1 - the Face-Change Gang, the Lunar Olympics and The Oxygen Board, all stories drawn by Brian Bolland. (Quick digression - the first Judge Dredd story I ever drew, Master Moves, revisited several of the themes of the Lunar Olympics.)
One thing I wanted to do was really establish the cityscape of Lunar-1; previous renditions of the city tended to show the domes from the outside, but avoid any sense of enclosure once you were inside - not that I'm being sniffy about the efforts on my predecessors; the geometry of the inside of a dome is horribly tricky to plot by hand, and the only way I did it was by modelling the domes in a 3D program. Not only was that technology unavailable to Messrs. Bolland, McMahon and Gibson back in the 1970’s, but they only had about half as long as I do to draw a single episode. Nevertheless, there was a gap in the visual landscape of the Dredd universe that I felt could be usefully filled.

I built the domes in Carrara 3D* using transparent spheres embedded into squat, wide cylinders on an infinite plain; I added various small blocks around the edges of the cylinders to simulate smaller support structures. The shape was loosely inspired by the design on the moonbase in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’d made the domes themselves transparent by adding a glass shader to them, but I needed a bit of structure as well, to help me add details like support struts (I generally build as little as possible in 3D, preferring to add a checkerboard pattern to objects which allows me to accurately place hand-drawn details such as windows, struts and panels on the surfaces of complex objects.) To get transparent domes with a checkerboard pattern on them, I copied the domes, pasted the copies back in exactly the same positions (in 3D modelling, two objects can exist in the same space), replaced the glass shader on the copies with checkerboard, then reduced the opacity of the checked domes down to about 10% - giving the effect of a checked frosting on the “glass” dome (there’s probably a more sophisticated way of doing this by editing the shader directly, but I was in a hurry and this worked).

*I don’t especially recommend Carrara, it just happens to be the descendant of a 3D program I was given back in the late 90’s, and I’ve stuck with it out of familiarity and the fact that upgrades are cheap. If you’re starting from scratch, Google Sketchup is probably a better bet; the basic version is free, it’s easy to learn and ideal for the sort of simple modelling needed by comic artists.

Four stages of work on page three (click on image to embiggen)
Top left: imported 3D render. Top Right: perspective grids and rough pencils
Bottom Left: finished pencils. Bottom Right: inks over pencils and 3D render.
Once the models were built it was just a question of placing a camera inside one of the domes to give the effect of looking down from a tall building near the crown of the dome. I’d already drawn a rough of the page to help me work out what angle and field of view I wanted. Once I’d got the view right in Carrara I did a screen grab and imported it into Manga Studio; there I could use the 3-Point Perspective Ruler to build a perspective grid that mapped onto the perspective of the scene. With the grid in place, I could sketch in the bubbly organic Dredd-world towers by eye. Obligingly, the checker pattern I’d applied to the 3D shapes mapped onto the circular cross-section of the base cylinders as a sort of dart-board target pattern, so I had the rings of concentric roads inside the domes ready laid-out for me!

Brian Bolland's splash for Judge Dredd: The Oxygen Board, 2000AD Prog 57.
Judge Dredd copyright Rebellion Developments Ltd/2000AD.
Judge Dredd created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra.
One last detail I made sure to add was the oxygen tankers docking with the crown of the domes - this comes from the Dredd story The Oxygen Board way back in Prog 57. I love finding these little connections back to the past history of the Dredd universe.

Lowlife: Saudade part one page three, with its eleven panel layout.
This is still only the same amount of work as six panels with two figures in each.
Lowlife Saudade copyright Rebellion Developments Ltd/2000AD. 
Lowlife created by Rob Williams and Henry Flint. 

I’ve been a little surprised at how much attention page 2’s received due to its 11-panel layout. I guess I’m bucking the trend these days but I absolutely LOVE this dense style of storytelling - on the rare occasions I’ve written for myself, I tend to do very high panel counts, going up to 20 panels a page in the A4 pages of Timulo (Deadline magazine, 1989-90) and averaging 12-16 panels in the US-comic-sized Consequences (Autocratik Press, 1999, both stories now available in the collection Timularo from It’s ironic, but dense pages always feel spacious to me, from the storytelling perspective; you can show the minutiae of action and reaction, take a character through a thought process; explore the environment that surrounds him. A lot of artists shy away from high panel counts because it looks like lots of work, but generally, because you can’t show as much per panel, you don’t end up doing that much extra drawing. Well, I don’t anyway.
 It’s a pity we don’t get to do more of this in 2000AD - unfortunately it’s a more contemplative style that’s probably at odds with 2000AD’s status as an adventure comic. I don’t know if it’s still the case, but a few years ago there was a 2000AD style guide that suggested no more than seven panels to the page maximum in order to keep the stories moving. But then again, Si Spurrier and I got away with a four-tier, eight-panel grid on The Vort.

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