I got my professional start in comics completely by accident. I was working as a flight instructor actually, and at a point in my career where I was contemplating the next step – going either into corporate aviation, or going the airline route. But I wasn’t very happy in my work. The reasons I’d gotten into aviation were not lining up with the realities of that industry. And then suddenly a health crisis saw my flight medical revoked.
The unexpected turn of events and a brush with my own mortality prompted a lot of honest soul-searching. The only thing that I’d ever really loved doing was telling stories, specifically through the medium of comics. But my art chops were pretty raw after years of not exercising them. I set myself up a series of “Art Boot Camps”, compiling lists of all areas I was really weak in. From 8PM-12AM, six days a week, after working all day and getting my toddler to bed I would study and practice. I got active online with the various comic book communities and started getting to know people and sharing my work. That eventually lead to some “just for fun” projects, which eventually started to lead to paying work.
The best way to wrap your head around Atomic Robo is to take the Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones, The Rocketeer, and Buckaroo Banzai, cram all of that into a five foot tall robot who wears pants and -BAM! You have Atomic Robo. (That’s my convention pitch, can you tell I’ve practiced it?) Atomic Robo is high adventure with a generous helping of humor laid on top. The character of Robo was built by Nikola Tesla in 1923 and is still around today in 2015. Each series tells a particular story from a particular period in Robo’s life, but not in any particular order. One series might be a kind of Borne Identity conspiracy story set in the present, while the next might be about a band of lady air pirates operating in the South Pacific in the aftermath of WWII.
Each series is designed to be a stand-alone book, but people reading all of the series will be rewarded with a lot of little nods and Easter eggs that create a deeper understanding of Atomic Robo and the world in which he lives. My co-creator Brian Clevinger writes the scripts while I handle the art duties. Our books are lettered and designed by Jeff Powell, who also works at Marvel Comics designing their trade paperbacks, and our books are currently colored by Anthony Clark – any webcomic readers will know him as the hilarious mind behind nedroid.com.
Before any art can happen Brian and I sit down and talk out the broad strokes of a story together. Then Brian goes off and breaks that down into a three-act story, which is further broken down into five, three-act chapters/issues. There are some read-throughs and some more back and forth, and then I get a semi-final script. At this point the art starts. I like to read the script again and mentally map it out in my head. And then I begin doing a first rough pass, using a big paintbrush to block out the panels and establish a visual flow. This is where we run into our first set of problems, as what flows nicely in the narrative of the script does not always flow visually on the page. This is why we call it the semi-final script, because now I have to start retelling the same story in a slightly different way to bring the intent of the writing, rather than the literal interpretation of the writing, onto the page.
It’s further complicated because we are trying to think about how our pages are going to read on a computer as well as in a printed book, which are oriented differently. Printed comic books are oddly shaped. This is because the first comic books were reprinting collections of newspaper strips, and newspapers have their own unique proportions. If you fold a newspaper in half a couple of times you will get the same height and width of a comic book. As far as I know, no other books are quite the same shape. So there is a legacy of this oddball aspect ratio from the 1930’s that we have to contend with. Most computer screens, tablets, and smartphones have a 4:3 aspect ratio. Okay, that’s not so odd; manufacturers want our media to display the same way across platforms. The weird part is that if you take two computer screens and stack them one screen above the other the new combined aspect ratio of the screens is exactly the same as that of a comic book, whose aspect ratio was determined by how newspapers got folded 85 years ago. Coincidence!?! I THINK N—yes probably.
With all of that in mind I asked our book designer Mr. Powell to make me a page template that would look just as good in a printed comic book as it would on my iPad. What he created was simple and effective -essentially two stackable half pages. We combine them for the printed books, and cut them in half for the webcomic. Having the page divided in the middle adds an extra level of challenge to layouts, since I can’t have a very tall panel that crosses the “equator” of my page without it screwing up how things read on the webcomic, even though it might be the most effective use of space on the printed page. But with SketchBook I can create several layers of roughs, toggle them on and off, recombine them etc., to make the best use of the space available.
Once the basic layout is set I draw in the panels on a new layer, make sure it’s my top layer, and lock it. At this point my process is very similar to the process I used when I was drawing comics on physical paper -except I can just toggle layers on and off instead of erasing holes through my pages. I’ll dial the opacity of the ROUGHS layer down to about 25% and start working on a SKETCH layer. Depending on how complex a page gets I might have multiple SKETCH layers -typically it’s just one for the characters and one for the environment. I like to work with colors at this stage. Partially because if really helps separate the figures from the environment they are in, but equally because its just a lot fun to draw in different colors and I don’t have to worry about how a scanner is going to choke on them, or what a pain it will be to get rid of them in Photoshop anymore.
For the SKETCH layers I use the basic SketchBook pencil. It is hands down the best digital “pencil” I have ever worked with. I absolutely adore it. I would marry the digital pencil if I could. I dial the pencil size up to between 7 and 10, but never any smaller than 7. One of the big challenges I have found going from physical drawing to digital artwork is maintaining a sense of scale. On my first couple of digital pages I would spend half a day tucked up in one corner of the page adding tons of detail to some unimportant panel, only to zoom out and realize I’d gotten nothing done and no one would ever see all the stuff I’d just crammed into that tiny space. Through trial and error I figured out that keeping the pencil set between 7-10 in combination with the particular size and resolution of the canvas I am working on does a good job of mimicking my mechanical pencils on a physical pages. It does a good job of keeping me from trying to add lots of tiny detail to a background figure that will barely be visible on the finished page.
Once the SKETCH layers are finished I can get rid of the ROUGHS, and then create several layers for the final inks. Usually it’s PEOPLE, BACKGROUND, FIDDLY BITS, and SCUFFS layers. The PEOPLE and BACKGROUND layers are self-explanatory. FIDDLY BITS is for a whole host of things -tiny objects, wires, buttons and knobs, cable housings, or anything particularly difficult to draw that I know will result in a lot of erasing and a lot of Ctrl-Z’ing. For example lets say I was drawing the exterior wall of a building in the BACKGROUND layers. I would use the Perspective Guides to create the basic structure and any windows and doors. The Perspective Guides are FANTASTIC by the way. I LOVE using them. But I have to be careful. They are so helpful that they can become a real time-sink for me, as I want to keep adding more and more layers of detail and shape. I’m noticing this is a trend for me in SketchBook! I get so wrapped up in what I can do that I tend to lose myself in the process. Anyway, on the FIDDLY BITS layer I will then draw all the stuff that makes a drawing of a building look, if not real, then believable. Telephone wires, electrical boxes, cables and pipes -the minutia that implies this is a complicated structure with internal wiring and plumbing. The SCUFFS layer is for, well, scuffing things up. I like Robo’s world to look lived in, and things that get used get nicked and scuffed. I also use little skuffs and tick marks to add depth to my otherwise very clean line drawings. I use them as a kind of code for shading and spot-blacks. When I am working on the final inks for a page the custom pen I am using is full of irony for me.
When I switched to making comics 100% digitally I had visions of textures and paintbrushes and layers of exciting and colorful ink-washes. And in my personal work I am exploring all of that and more. But to get the look I want in Atomic Robo – which is kind of a clean, animated cell-shaded look, the line work needs to be simple. The custom pen I made that consistently delivers the best results for me has a consistent size and the opacity barely changed with pen pressure. So I’ve got this fancy Cintiq and all the bells and whistles of SketchBook Pro 7, and yet I am essentially inking my work with a digital ball point pen, HAHA!
That aside though, being able to work in layers, the Perspective Guides and Steady Stroke (a critical tool for drawing Robo’s eyes!), and the general workflow that I have been able to create for myself in SketchBook is fantastic. I love when I get the chance to dive back into my physical SketchBook, but the few times I’ve physically draw comics since I started working in SketchBook have been shocking. I particularly love how intuitive SketchBook is in execution and implementation. I had tried going digital a few times in the past, but every program I tried before SketchBook made the simple act of drawing feel like work. Like the actual artist was some irritating and secondary factor in the minds of them programmers.
Create the comics that you want to read – not the comics you think other people want to read. Comics are a weird and unique medium for self-expression, and the truly great comics and manga are written for a single audience – their creators. If what you create has value, others will be drawn to it.