How to make comics, Part one – The emotions of Concrete

This is the first post in a series about how I make comics. Inspired by the recent completion of  my latest comic, Concrete. You can read Concrete here.

Part one (This part) | Part two

Making comics is different from any other craft that I practice. With illustration, singing, writing, knitting, all your energy and creativity is funnelled into a very specific shape. Even tasks that require several disciplines (illustration using colour + line, singing for me usually involves a guitar or ukulele), the disciplines compliment each other. They happen at the same speed and can easily be absorbed together as a whole. They naturally fit together.

With comics I feel like there’s a weird dischord that happens with the elements you try to combine. Words travel at a different speed to images but they have to work together to tell a story. Words want you to rush, and pictures chuck the breaks on. Even wordless comics have to somehow graciously portray time in a medium that is (usually) completely static. It’s like combining oil and water. Comics are story alchemy.

I consider myself a comic artist at the core. This might seem a bit weird to people because I only have three comics up online at the moment. They’re all really short and there’s two years between the release of each one. One reason is a lot of life happened in between each comic. Another is that comics are really hard, and I don’t want to release anything I’m not proud of.

I’ve had pretty severe art block for a couple of years now. Even while I was making Sunshine, I felt like I was battling uphill. It was hard work to make, and so after I finished it I spent time and energy on other projects I found easier (usually knitting). 2012 was a very quiet year illustration-wise, and 2013 wasn’t a heap better. I’ve had a couple of comic projects on my perpetual ‘to do’ pile because I couldn’t easily achieve the storytelling and illustration style I wanted. They have been left there as complex puzzles I haven’t quite worked out how to solve.

I have been busy with other things too. I have learnt to knit, which is one of the most rewarding skills outside of drawing that I have ever come across (I should really write a thing about how great knitting is – it’s so great). I have made huge steps in my non-art career, which I care about as much as I care about illustration and comics. And I have done a lot of thinking and learning about a lot of things. Including what I want to do with my drawing, whether comics really are where I want to put my energy, or whether there’s something else I need to be making (I’d really absolutely love to make games as well).

During the art block time (Which I think I can finally say I’ve cracked now, I hope), every drawing and line was an effort. Even thinking about drawing was an expense of energy I didn’t have. It sucked to not be drawing, but it also sucked to feel like every time I picked up a pencil I was pushing against a strong force, and I just couldn’t get past that feeling. My skills went rusty, my ideas went bland and every drawing I did had a lot of pressure placed on it because it was ‘the only thing I’d drawn in ages’. So it was also inevitably going to be crap.

I still drew commissions and some personal stuff during this time. If you look over the work you probably can’t see the ‘crap’ that I can see. It probably looks like perfectly acceptable illustration work, and probably seems to fit in fine with the rest of what I’ve made. The difference is that there is significantly less of it during this phase. I think I didn’t produce a single new print-quality illustration during 2012 that wasn’t Sunshine.

A bunch of things have changed now. I’ve been working hard to overcome art block. It’s like physical fitness – there’s a blend of active training and a need for rest. I began making sure that I drew every day (or every other day), but more than that, I made sure I had a plan. I outlined the things in my art that I wanted to improve, and I made sure I put some time into practicing those. Key things for me lately have been feet, full-body poses and getting a bit more detail and expression into my hands. I’ve also been working on diversifying the cast of miscellaneous people I draw.

I’ve also tried to minimise the feeling of ART GUILT that I get. ART GUILT (yes, it is in allcaps, ask any artist ever) is the crushing sense of guilt you feel whenever you do anything that isn’t your art. This includes working, cooking, eating, and especially sleeping. ART GUILT happens mostly with entertainment – so for me TV shows, games and knitting get major ART GUILT points, but it also affects me whenever I decide to go socialise, even if I had no real plans to do any real drawing that night. That time COULD have been drawing time and now it definitely ISN’T. It made it hard to enjoy things.

I’m not sure quite how I managed to shut my ART GUILT voice up, it hasn’t been a super conscious process. I think it’s mainly quietened down for me because I am always looking to live a more balanced life. When you are able to eat well and sleep well, when you manage your time well, this angst just sort of slips away. Games, socialising, TV, and general living are all important to me. They help me to relax and to feel like a whole person. They also fuel my art. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the two most recent comic ideas I have had were both because I went out to visit friends.

Now after some time building up my drawing fitness I am able to produce a lot more work a lot faster. My sketch folder for 2014 has 365 items in it already (Compare this to 2013’s 249 or 2012’s 36 items). Even though a lot of this is noise fluff, there’s a lot of value in how much drawing I’ve gotten done. Improving my drawing fitness has meant that I’m now making work that doesn’t feel like a battle. Most of Concrete has happened pretty smoothly. The story showed up in my brain whole, and all I had to do was draw it down. And I was able to do so! That’s some magic right there.

I’m planning to write another piece about the technical aspects of how Concrete came together, but I thought it was important to document my emotional process too. This is just as crucial for making a comic as any amount of technical knowledge can be. To make comics, to make art, you need to work just as much at being a person as you do at being an artist. They’re the same thing, anyway.

On Privilege, Mysogyny Behemoths and Real Life

So yesterday I tweeted this beautiful piece by Cara Ellison on being a woman and fighting the role of being a muse.

Shortly after posting it I received a very excited email from a male friend of mine. We talk a lot about creativity and creative stuff. It was quite cool to know that he’d read the article and found something that resonated with him.

Only as I read his reply something felt a bit off. It was all about his creative experience and his anxiety to be a maker, and where that part of the article had taken him. It seemed that he had missed the core part of the article, the part about how it is harder for women to be accepted in creative spaces, that our ‘in’ is through the beds of the creative men, that our voices are often taken and twisted to be men’s voices.

And though his action he’d become a part of this pattern. A friend, who I assumed would know better, came to me and essentially wanted me to be his muse for him. He gave me his raw thoughts about his creativity and expected me to help him to analyse and repackage them to build something stronger for him. He took this article and made it all about his creative needs, leaving no space for me. I felt uncomfortable about being given this raw brainmeat, especially while I was in the middle of processing what this article meant to me. I immediately felt squished out of a conversation that was supposed to be about women in creative spaces, about my own place there.

I am a naturally caring person. I love to help and to share the things I have been through in order to give strength to others. It’s my natural urge to respond with positives, to help my friend process and tap into his creativity the way that he wants and needs to. And this is a role I’ve played before and still want to play in the future, for this friend and for others as well. For creativity, for mental health and general wellbeing. But this time, this article, this moment, it just wasn’t the right time.

So now I was in a tough situation. Do I be a good feminist, or a good friend? Do I look after myself here, or do I look after my friend? Especially when if I look after myself I deny the caring part of me, and if I look after my friend I deny the core of the article that resonated so much with me. I ignore the women who are silenced, and I essentially become the muse mentioned in the article. I ended up choosing to do both at once, because the idea that I have to choose between being a good feminist and a good friend is complete crap.

I’m a feminist. This is something that is a growing journey for me, as I learn about the world, how women are treated in it, and the thousands of ways, big and small, that women are conditioned, shaped, chided, silenced and pushed out. When I view the larger patterns, when I read the articles of other women who have had more experience in these fights, I feel their strength and I can see the patterns. My opinions and my voice grow stronger, I am able to identify the larger patterns and how the smaller ebbs build in to big waves.

It is easy to see and identify misogyny and patriarchy when they are large behemoths of violence, destroying and silencing women. It is easy to find strength in the words and actions of strong women, turning air into concrete that I can stand on. I am so grateful to every woman who shares her story, because I know it is never an easy thing to speak about. It’s a thousand times harder when the expression of invisible privilege happens in your own space. It is hard to even identify that your voice is being silenced, that you are allowed to not be okay with this. It happens so naturally and so subtly, and we have been trained since birth to do this dance. It is hard to build up the courage to stand up and make your voice heard, when you know the natural response to your voice is to treat it as a threat.

It’s difficult to stand up to the men in your own life, the same men who likely have listened and agreed and likely joined in the fight against the Misogyny Behemoth that lumbers through society. They listen often, they take things in, they learn and they grow. But they still get things wrong sometimes, because privilege is invisible.

It’s scary to confront them, to know that if they don’t understand that this might be the loss of a friend, or a damaging blow to the relationship with a family member. That the most likely thing that will happen will be the dismissal of your opinion using any one of the many tactics that have been used a thousand thousand times.

I am lucky to have understanding friends, and that in this instance I have had a positive experience. My friend took my concerns on board, apologised for taking up space that wasn’t his to take, and promised to be more aware in the future. This seems lucky, and I’m glad for it. It helps me to know I can trust this person, that their expression of invisible privilege is something they will allow me to call them on. If men are wondering what they can do for women? This is it. this is the thing. Listen, take on board, and look to identify where you are taking up space that isn’t yours. Sit down.

The next time this happens with someone else it might not be so easy for me to identify, and it might not be so easy to confront. It will happen again, it’s absolutely undeniable. The next time it happens I might even be the perpetrator, I definitely have my own fair share of invisible privilege.

I work hard to be aware of my privilege and learn to look for the times where I benefit purely because of who I am. While I am not playing life on the absolute lowest difficulty setting, I’m definitely still somewhere towards the easy end. This is an important part of being a human in the world, especially one who wants change.

Papercraft UX with the mighty shiba inu

Sometimes I get a strong compulsion to pick up an craft project, usually with a craft I’ve either never done before or haven’t done in a while. My mind fills with single-minded determination and I can’t rest or think about anything else until the project is complete. It’s been a while since I’ve been struck by this very specific lightning bolt of inspiration, but it hit me yesterday, and so I had to make a papercraft shiba inu.

SHIBA INU!Backstory

My Bestesty best friend loves shiba inu a lot. Unfortunately she can’t have one at the moment, because her lifestyle isn’t set up for a dog. She’s moving soon and I thought that a shiba inu drawing might be a nice housewarming present. But what’s better than a picture of a shiba inu? A model of a shiba inu.

The Shiba

I found this pattern on Canon’s papercraft site, which has a pretty intense collection of papercraft. It looked complicated, but by this point I was well into the obsessive need to make this thing, and didn’t want to let some paper defeat me. Before I knew it I was spending my afternoon making this little paper dog.

Assembly

Uhu glue. Definitely good to have something stronger than a glue stick on hand for this one.The cool thing about following really good instructions is that there’s almost no friction between you and the thing you want to get done. I wasn’t expecting this project to come together smoothly, I was expecting bumps and frustration, but there was surprisingly little of this. The biggest frustration was temporarily being unable to locate my Uhu glue.

Despite the fact that this pattern was obviously originally Japanese and for a Japanese audience, there was no difficulty in following the pattern’s English version. Language played a very small part in the instructions – in fact the instruction sheet themselves played a small part in the instructions. Almost all the information needed was available in the pattern design, especially once I was familiar enough to read the symbols, which didn’t take long.

An example of a pattern piece

This example pattern piece shows the symbols. The red dots connect to a different pattern piece, the triangles  connect to the same piece. After assembling a few pieces I referred to the instructions only if a shape really didn’t make sense to me, otherwise I’d just plow on. It’s a pretty special feeling, to be able to steamroll ahead with something and face almost no resistance from your tools. With the restrictions we so often face with the web it’s not often we get to have or deliver an experience so free from issue, or one that helps the user feel this rewarded at the end.

Now I get to feel really smug about how I made some papercraft, when I was exceptionally crap at it as a kid.

Assembled shiba

I’m glad I listened to the strange compulsion and took the time to make this dog. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it so much, or to have as many UX feelings while I was putting it together, but that’s a part of the fun, I suppose!

Photo 15-04-14 22 45 52 Photo 16-04-14 8 04 42 Photo 16-04-14 14 59 11 Photo 16-04-14 15 00 31

(I am really super stoked with how well he turned out.)