I'm sick of not drawing comics! Time to draw comics!
You know what I haven't done in over a year? Posted A new page of Yuki Hoshigawa!!
Yes, that's right! My webcomic is back in action.
Sushu helped me with this one, both by giving feedback at the sketching stage, and by doing some photoshop touching-up in post-production. We're a husband-and-wife comics team! Huzzah!
"Minority Report" wasted the opportunity to explore the limitless embarrassment potential of these things.
That's right humes! I got another comic done!.
Sushu helped a lot with this one. She did some penciling of poses and more importantly she drew the cover for the GUIDO X MATZ manga (higher-quality raw scan) (unused alternate version). Also she added the mouse in panel 5. Slowly this comic is becoming a team effort.
The dark side of the Internet
This cry of despair, written by a former Mozilla intern who I worked with briefly in summer 2008, reminds us of the dark side of knowing everything about everybody.
It also reminds me, a lot, of the issues that a certain webcomic was trying to get at. I should really make time to get back to that. Now, where did I put my sketchpads after I moved?
First comic of 2010
Hey Alexis, look what I finished!
With this page I decided to see what I could do if I went for broke on the backgrounds. I tried to really capture the feeling of walking down Japanese city streets at twilight in autumn. I used a lot of reference photos of Sendai, which is one of my favorite Japanese cities (apart from Kamaishi of course).
It took forever to do these backgrounds, and I think the end result is too busy visually - it makes a cool drawing but it doesn't read well as a comic. So, it was a fun experiment but I think I'm going to cut way down on the details from here on in order to get pages done faster.
Mixi is a real social networking site. It's bigger than Facebook in Japan.
OH YEAH SECOND COMIC THIS MONTH
Check it out guys!
Miniatures painted: 0!
Comics drawn: 2!
So, it turns out I really like drawing sushi.
Didn't know much about story structure
When I started my webcomic, I didn't know the first thing about story structure.
I didn't know anything about story structure when I came up with the original idea and first sketches and plot outline, which was in freaking 2003, I still didn't know anything about it when I started drawing pages in 2004, and I still didn't know anything about it in 2005 when I started drawing the stuff that ended up in the archive I have now.
Story structure is hard to learn. It's even harder if you're a science fiction fan and a (traditional) role-player. Science fiction teaches you all the wrong lessons about story structure, because SF makes the settings so prominent that when SF fans start trying to write things, we've got a pathological focus on setting to the exclusion of character and plot. Traditional RPGs have character and plot, but they get it all backwards. The GM writes the plot first and then you take a bunch of characters who have nothing to do with the plot and try to force them into it. So as an SF fan and RPGer I had a lot of crap to unlearn about the relationship between setting, character, and plot. (And theme? What's that?)
In the last couple years I've finally been figuring out a few things about story structure.
Part of it is understanding that it's all artifice. It means looking critically and analytically at how your favorite stories function, not just letting yourself get swept away in them. You have to look behind the illusion if you want to learn how to create it, which means giving up certain romantic notions: about inspiration, and about imaginary worlds taking on a life of their own, stuff like that. I understand now that comicking is 1% inspiration: the rest is careful planning, repeated revisions, throwing stuff out, trimming dialogue, and grinding out lots and lots of drawings of the same things over and over.
I think I've also learned a lot from the improvisational, collaborative style of role-playing that I've been doing the past few years: how to create an initial situation that is ripe for action, with characters who have motivation and natural reasons to get into conflict with each other, characters with issues that will force them to make morally/thematically relevant decisions.
Suffice to say, if I was starting the comic now I would do things a lot differently. I'm proud of (most of) the pages that I've done, but if I was doing it now I wouldn't have spent 30 pages just on lining up characters and setting and Yuki's daily frustrations etc. I would have started with more of a bang.
My plan right now is to do 19 more strips to finish out the arc I had planned for chapter 1. I've had to throw out a lot of stuff to get it down to just 19, including some strips I had already sketched - they amused me, but they weren't essential to the story. Chapter 1 will end on or around strip 50.
Then I'll plan out Chapter 2 using everything I now know about story structure, and hopefully it'll be a lot tighter and have a lot more drama.
Yuki Hoshigawa #33
Yuki Hoshigawa # 33: Do you want to be a stalker? is up. I'm rather proud of this one.
Many thanks to Sushu for the post-production Photoshop work!
I just might be able to keep to this 2-comics-per-month schedule. Huzzah!
By the way, I fixed the comment form on the comic page, and I added a new RSS feed just for the comic. So you can subscribe to that if you want to get just the comic and not the blog.
A lame excuse
I finished drawing and scanning in my second comic for February, but the image files still need some editing and I can't stay up too much later, so I'm going to post it tomorrow.
Second comic for February
I'm sorry that Sushu had do to so much painstaking post-production work in Photoshop on this one. But I really like how that "background fog" gradient came out! Thank you Sushu!
On Writing Webcomics
1. I'm not good at this.
The main reason I stopped working on Yuki hoshigawa was frustration at my inability to get the story moving. I didn't want to write a plotless slice-o-life comic where Yuki comments on society and feels depressed and nothing else happens. I wanted to write a science fiction story, emphasis on story. But what I wrote instead was thirty pages of meandering introduction, basically.
I made a classic mistake. Combine an initially passive protagonist with a distaste for arbitrary forcing events (aka a desire to have story emerge organically) and you have a recipe for inaction. It's exactly like a role-playing game where the players make characters with no intrinsic motivations and the GM refuses to railroad. Yuki had no reason to do anything besides mope around.
Plot doesn't come real naturally to me. The inspiration for Yuki Hoshigawa (starting almost ten years ago!) has all been about theme and character development and setting, not plot. That's how writing fiction goes, I think: sometimes the plot comes to you and you need to fill in the characters, soetimes the other way around. Ultimately you need all the pieces working together to build an interesting story. I've got this swirling nebula of related themes and character issues in my brain, but I have great difficulty expressing it as a linear series of events, or even describing it to close friends.
Years ago I figured out an ending for what was supposed to be chapter 1. I'd been refining it ever since. But sometime around last summer, I decided to get serious about writing a solid plot. I re-examined my planned chapter 1 and realized it sucked big time. It was an accumulation of scenes that I liked but that didn't have much to do with each other. (I would tear it up and throw it away, but to do that I'd have to print it out first.) I started over.
In January I wrote an outline of a ~20 pages standalone story. But that one wasn't good enough either. It was too goofy, and the action too contrived. Fun, but it didn't feel "Yuki" enough. Writing it was good practice, but it's worth the time I would have to spend drawing it. I filed that one away too, to plunder some of its better ideas later.
Now I'm working on yet another draft, from scratch. My biggest problem is that when I try to think of a climax, most of the scenes that come to mind don't fit the buildup. I know the shape of the hole and now I'm searching for a peg that fits there.
But I'm pretty excited about where it's going. I'm looking forward to drawing again, when I can work from a plot outline that I love.
2. The advice out there for writing comics sucks.
I started reading a lot, looking for advice about story structure and how to craft a plot. There are people out there who make a living doing this and they know how to do it. But good advice is hard to find -- especially for comics.
If you just search for "writing" you hit a lot of articles that assume you're writing a novel, so they're all about paragraph breaks and how to write descriptive sentences and "he said", "she said". In other words, they're about the surface-level presentation of a text format. Completely useless for comics, which have an entirely different surface-level presentation. I want to know about the deeper structure, the stuff that comics and novels have in common -- pacing, character development, dialog, etc.
OK, so I search for "writing comics". Now the results are even worse! Now all the articles you get assume you're submitting a script to Marvel or DC. They're all superhero-centric, they assume a 32-page format, and even worse: they assume that you're writing a script for somebody else to draw. So there's a ton of stuff about the right way to format a script and very little about how to tell a story. A ton of stuff about describing panels and none about laying out panels.
Finally, if you search for "story structure" you get a lot of stuff aimed at people who are trying to break into Hollywood script writing and are looking for the right formula to use to sell their script to a studio. They'll tell you that you need to hit a certain plot point by a certain page in your script and a lot of other rigid, formulaic stuff like that. Frankly a lot of it sounds like superstition - follow these rituals exactly, or else you will anger the script gods!
I've found some helpful material in resources aimed at playwriting and screenwriting. Both of these media have a much more well-developed body of theory and analysis than comics do. (Going all the way back to Aristotle, in fact.) And they're more similar to comics than novels are. Stage plays are all about dialog; screenplays are all about telling a story with images; lessons about either of these things apply directly to comics.
One of the better books I've found on the subject is Story by Robert McKee, an infamous and curmudgeonly teacher of screenwriting. Boring, shallow, cliched, lazy writing offends him on a deep moral level, and he will not tolerate it. Nor will he tolerate people looking for shortcuts to fame and riches. Reading the book is kind of like hearing a grouchy old man rail against the degeneration of modern society. But I learned a lot. And apart from one chapter about script formatting and written description, all the rest of the book is applicable to comics as well as screenplays.
3. Why writing is hard
I had an epiphany today: the space of everything you could possibly write is the real numbers, the space of stuff that's interesting to read is the integers. They're both "infinite" but if you pick something at random, the chances it will fall in the latter category is infinitesimal. (And, um, the fact that I had to use a math metaphor to understand writing tells you a lot about why this doesn't come naturally to me.)
The hardest part of writing isn't having ideas or getting motivated or finding the deeper meaning or making characters believable or polishing dialogue or any of that stuff. The hardest part is deciding what things are going to happen in your story, in what order. Yes. That sounds kind of like "duhhhh" but it's surprisingly hard and nobody wants to talk about it. It's easy to have lots and lots of ideas but hard to know which ones fit together and which ones don't.
You've got infinite combinations to choose from, but your choices must satisfy a gauntlet of contradictory requirements: The chain of cause and effect must be clear, logical, and internally consistent; the pacing must be good, with rising action and tension and relief and no boring stretches; the reader must get enough exposition to understand the situation, but without infodumping; setup must come before payoff, payoff must be worth it; characters' motivations must make sense and character development must be beleivable; it must be the protagonists' choices that drive things and those choices must express the character development and the results of those choices must express the theme; and we should try to do all this without falling back on cliche or being too predictable. Oh, and since this is a comic, the events have to be drawable, visually interesting, and expressable via panel flow.
It's a tall order, all of that together. I used to think that you could just start drawing a comic at page 1 and keep drawing until you got to the last page and the story would emerge as a spontaneous outburst of creativity.
That's... not really how it works. (At least not for me. Maybe there's some insane genius out there who can do it that way.)
Drawing a story that's more than a bunch of random stuff that happens is craft. It doesn't happen by accident. It's a lot of work and planning and rewriting. It takes deep understanding and a willingness to kill your darlings. You don't work from the first page to the last page; you work from idea to outline to rough draft to script to thumbnails to pencil sketch to inking. You try to catch and correct problems as early as possible, because it's much "cheaper" to fix them early, e.g. fill a plot hole or cut out a boring dialog scene before you've spent time drawing anything. The reader never sees any of the work you did prior to the inking stage; what they read is the last stage of a long journey, but if you did it right, it has the illusion of spontaneity.
More thoughts on writing comics
There was a Q&A session at a comic book signing i went to once. Sushu pointed out how you can tell the fans from the aspiring comic authors: the fans ask about the fictional characters, the aspiring authors ask about the writing process. Fans ask questions like "what was character X doing between the end of part 1 and the beginning of part 2?"
From an author's perspective, questions like this make no goddamn sense! Do fans think these characters really exist somewhere, having adventures, that the author observes and reports on? No! It's made up! The characters don't exist outside of what the author has written about them, and if the author chose to leave something out the book, it's usually for a good reason: that part of the character's life is boring and unimportant!
Trying to write fiction for real forever changes the way you relate to it as an audience. I used to get swept up in a story, forget it was imaginary. Now I'm always thinking about "why is this character in this scene" "why does this scene happen at this point in the plot" etc. The ability to get lost in a story has been taken away from me. (But in exchange, I've gained the ability to appreciate the craftsmanship in what I'm reading. It's a fair trade.)
Trying to write fiction has given me a new appreciation for cliche. That is, I still don't much enjoy reading it, and I don't want to write it, but I understand why it's so common and what function it serves. Cliches are structures that have proven themselves to work reliably.
Take the "journey to the other end of the map", favorite cliche of fantasy authors. It works because it lets you take the reader on a vicarious tour of your setting without too much infodumping. It lets you show off how the diversity of nations and cultures in your world and demonstrate how they're all suffering because of the Dark Lord, it taps into the universal human interest in exploration, and the journey across the map can be, like, a metaphor for an internal journey of self-discovery, like wow man did I just blow your mind?
One of the most common science-fiction plotlines is "Hero is the only one with a technology that can change the course of a war". It works because it gives enormous moral weight to the hero's decisions (important) while letting us explore how a new technology can upset the balance of power and change the status quo (one of the primary, central themes of science fiction). Plus it gives us an excuse to have lots of cool battle scenes.
Why do horror movies always have the phone lines get cut or cell phone reception mysteriously go out? It's so the protagonist can't just call the police and let them deal with it, which is the first thing any sane person would do in real life.
If you want to avoid those cliches you need to come up with an alternative structure that accomplishes the same things, and that's really hard. People have been telling stories for a long time across a lot of different cultures. No matter how brilliantly original you think your idea is, somebody's probably written something at least a little similar to it before, and so they've had to solve the same structural problems as you have. The problem I posed in the previous post - how to decide what happens, and in what order - gets a lot harder when you're purposely avoiding the most reliable and popular patterns!
There are easier ways. You can disguise the cliche so it's not so blatantly obvious - throw out false clues to trick the trope-aware reader into expecting one plot twist, then go with another. Or you can accept cliches in your structure and try to be original in the contents. (You didn't invent the sandwich, but you can experiment with new sandwich fillings.) An interesting cast of characters can make a story worth reading even if the plot structure is something you've read before.
I think that trying too hard to avoid cliche is a trap that beginning writers fall into. You read TV Tropes and say to yourself "I'm not going to do ANY of these things!" until you realize that ripping out all the tropes is like ripping out the skeleton -- if you don't have something to replace it with, your story will flop around on the floor and be unable to move anywhere.
My story is about Japanese computer programmers in the near future, so every cyberpunk cliche ever is readily available. Right now I'm giving a lot of thought to which ones I might want to try to put an original twist on, and which ones I want to avoid entirely.
Check out this drawing I did
I've been messing around with various Linux drawing programs, trying to find something more usable than Gimp for comic-drawing.
The nicest one I've found so far is MyPaint. It's missing some surprising features (layers but no selections?) but it correctly responds to stylus pressure with zero configuration needed, and for a Linux desktop program that's pretty impressive.
Anyway I just used it to draw this:
Click for full size.