A year ago this week, I did a little on-stage presentation for my first-ever published comics writing. Myself and my artistic collaborators Kalman Andrasofszky and Ramon Perez put together a ten-page story for an anthology that Image Comics was putting together, as a ‘tribute’ to the band Belle & Sebastian. The book was called Put The Book Back On The Shelf, and I was very proud of the work that my collaborators and I had done, and of the rest of the work in the book. The on-stage presentation was for Toronto’s “Nuit Blanche”, an arts festival where the whole city stays up all night and does… art things. We put the presentation together because it was a way to promote the work we did, and because I thought it all came together in an interesting way. I’ve been meaning for the better part of a year to actually share all of that with the blog, so seeing as our anniversary is only a few short days away, I feel like now’s the perfect time!
What follows is a short trip inside the creative process of someone writing their first comics story, and a short at that. It’s not the only way to do things, and probably not the best, but it worked for me (and the guys too). Oh, and I’m including the whole story here as jpegs, for you to read before I completely deconstruct it below. I hope you enjoy it.
(Oh, and though I get to it later, I want to thank Kalman and Ramon for doing a goddamned amazing job on my script, they knocked it out of the park and it was even better than I imagined.)
So I absolutely love the band Belle & Sebastian, love them. Their music is very inspiring to me, and especially when I had first discovered them, the alternatively mundane and fantastic qualities of their lyrics would inspire me to film little music videos for them in my mind… videos or comics, anyway. The song ‘Expectations’ from the album ‘Tigermilk’ was a particular favourite, and particularly evocative.
I also noticed that many of the songs seems to be about sad girls.
Granted, there are many haters who’d say the band themselves are nothing but a bunch of sad girls (touche!) but really, the band’s lead singer and lyricist would spend a few songs an album writing songs about girls that were sad and shit-on by society, but would one day overcome and be fabulous. If that isn’t the ultimate compliment to a sad, put-upon teenager (of any gender) I don’t know what is.
My friend [Oni Press EiC] James Lucas Jones and I were chatting one night about something or other when he mentioned that Image was putting together a Belle & Sebastian anthology, comics adapting and inspired by B&S’s music… and I became immediately and deeply depressed. James couldn’t figure it out as I’d never previously expressed much interest in creating comics, but I’d thought of doing B&S comics for years, only to be left out of the one project where that might be an actual possibility. “You makes your choices” and all that, being a comics retailer/support staff/critic/whatever instead of a creator, but every once in a while… I explain this to James. He text messages the project’s editor B. Clay Moore in another window. I’m in the book.
How do you break into comics? Just ask, apparently it’s quite easy. (hahahahahaha… sorry.)
So now I have to actually write a comic story.
The discography of Belle & Sebastian, circa June 2005.
I decided that the easiest way not to fuck this up was to work from an outline, and then sort of fill in the details as I went. There are a lot of ways to approach a story, but I figured creating a rigid structure for the work ahead of the time would let me off the hook when it came to the heavy lifting later… I was mostly right, once I had that structure it was really just a matter of getting inside the mind of the character and filling in the details, but it also required some creativity on my part to get out of a few tight spots.
To start, I went to a Belle & Sebastian fan-site, and just started reading everything about the band’s CDs that I could. Release schedules, methods, lyrics, all of it. It helped that I could probably karaoke 3/4 of their entire output, if necessary (not that it would ever be necessary?!), but I realised that it wasn’t just my imagination–the sad girl archetype character made an appearance on more-or-less every album or single, and then some! I had my lead character.
I thought: “Why not make her the ultimate sad Belle & Sebastian girl? Push her right down as far as she can go, only to let her claw her way back up and come through okay. The whole story can be told in narration–it can be the terrible, selfish, whiny livejournal posts of a disaffected girl in her teens and then maturing into her 20s, incorporating song lyrics along the way. I’ll even draw it (have it drawn) in a hazy sort of shoujo style. It’ll be based on the song EXPECTATIONS, the first and clearest of the sad-girl manifesto songs. It’ll be awesome!”
I was trying to figure out a way that we could tell the story, and it just clicked that if every album had a sad-girl song on it, why not make the points at which we visit our protagonist the release dates of the various albums and singles?
The problem became immediately obvious, with Tigermilk released in 1994, we’ve sort-of predated much of contemporary internet culture, LiveJournal included. I dropped the LJ thing in favour of a diary (because who wants to read whiny emo LJ posts anyway?) but the structure of visiting her on those dates seemed perfect… We’d get a span of her life from early highschool through to being a professional woman, a ‘success’.
Then, a flash! The dates that were full albums, those could be full-page installments of her story, to better pace the huge duration of years that the story would need to encompass. And each page would also in some way relate to the sad-girl song on the album it represents. The EPs could be one panel on a page, one song as well, staccato bursts of time showing window into her world, a snapshot of her depression and loneliness.
How the albums fit together as comics pages. 1-1-3-1-2-1-3-1.
Yeah, Tigermilk would be our introduction, a full page of cooperative but distinct narration and action. The song? Expectations of course, and that’s the song that our story ended up representing in the book, and setting the tone for the story. Then Seeing Other People from the second album, Belle & Sebastian from the next EP, etc.
Artistically, I think the most amazing thing I thought up was the thing about the album covers. I wanted the art to relate to and evoke the band’s music as much as the story would, and I figured a good way to convey the mood and tone of the albums would be to steal the palette for the colouring on the pages from the albums. Originally, when the story was going to be shoujo-y and a straight adaptation, I was going to colour it using the cover of Tigermilk as a guide. The hazy silver-grey would play nicely to the strengths of shoujo art… But now that the story was encompassing the band’s entire output to that time, with a page or panel relating to a specific album, why not use all of the cds as visual inspiration? Silver Tigermilk, Angry Red If You’re Feeling Sinister, a sepia-toned Belle & Sebastian EP, etc.
Some examples of the albums and the colour design. Good job, Kalman and Ramon!
So now I knew exactly what I wanted. I wrote myself an outline of everything I’d been thinking. All of the info and research on the band, all of the important songs and lyrics, all of my ideas on colour, on structure, on everything. And once I had this and it seemed like it could actually happen, I decided I better find someone to draw it.
FINDING AN ARTIST:
Me: “Hey, Kalman Adrasofszky, artist of iCandyÂ for DC Comics, amongst other things. I’m writing this story. Do you want to draw it? There’s probably no money.”
Kalman: “Sure, let’s do it!”
Me: “Great. Let me ask Ramon Perez also. Ramon, artist of Butternut Squash, I know you’re incredibly busy, but do you maybe wanna work with Kalman on this for me? Maybe like an pencil/ink/colour sort of split thing?”
Ramon: “Why not? Have you got a script?”
Me: “No, no. But I’ve got an outline and Eric Stephenson says he’ll publish it if I don’t suck. So all of the free work you do will likely at least get published, probably.”
Ramon and Kalman: “Well alright then, let’s get to work!”
(Don’t try this at home.)
ACTUALLY WRITING A STORY:
Despite having a cohesive structure and a ton of notes and knowing in my head exactly what I wanted… I had a really hard time putting pen to paper. I had never written a comic script before, though I’d read tons as well as read (and conducted) lots of interviews on craft and creation and all that. I knew what to do, I just wasn’t sure I knew how. So I procrastinated a lot, and didn’t do the work, and just convinced myself I could do it any time, when I needed to.
Then, I really, really fucking needed to get it done in a hurry because the deadline was here and I hadn’t written a fucking word and Kalman was like Get The Lead Out, Butcher. So I sort of freaked out and just started writing the script after Kalman’s “motivational” e-mail while I was at work one day. Surprise! The outline and all the research basically let the story write itself. I think I only made two or three changes from what I sent Kalman (below) on that first draft.
3 roughly equal tiers of panels, with a large establishing character shot on the right hand side. Colour is sort of a bleached blue-grey like the cover of TIGERMILK. The over-all setting is in Toronto, in 1996. Our lead character is in grade 9. Feel free to use remembrances of your past freely. The beginning of the story especially should have a dream-like quality. Song: Expectations.
Character shot: 14 year old girl in a catholic school uniform. Skirt is longer than her friends, and she’s got a few little badges/buttons on her sweater. He shoes are big clunky things. Her hair just sort of hangs off her. She’s not unattractive, but she’s got lousy posture and a horrible look on her face. Who can blame her?
Our girl, dead-and-centre sitting in class, people sitting behind her (a row of faces from edge-to-edge of the panel) chuckling, but not laughing out loud or anything as they don’t want to get caught. Our girl has her eyes closed, and is trying to keep expressionless.
CAPTION: APRIL 1, 1996
NARRATION: I’m a freak. I’m weird and I’m alone and my mom sends me to Catholic School and I hate it. I hate her.
120 degree camera turn. We’re just behind-and-to-the-right of the girl sitting behind our protagonist, so that we can see the sign taped to her back. “CUNT”. People are still chuckling, except for the antagonist who just looks smug.
NARRATION: My teachers are bastards and perverts, and usually both. My peers are assholes. My day means getting shit on from the alarm buzzer until I fall asleep. I cry sometimes.
PROTAGONIST: (small) Bitch.
Roughly the same scene, maybe pull back a little. Protagonist is freaking out, and has quickly turned and is moving towards the smug bitch, who looks quite a bit more surprised now. The background is mostly faded out at this point.
NARRATION: And when I lash out, suddenly it’s all my fault. Grade 9 can’t end soon enough.
I was just writing and writing and sending it a page at a time to Kalman as I was going. And that’s what he worked from, and I got a bit of a deadline extension from Eric Stephenson after we sent the first finished page in, and that gave us enough breathing room to get it done, despite my fucking around. Lesson learned: Don’t fuck the deadline.
MAKING ALL OF THE ART AND STUFF
At the onset, Kalman was pencilling/inking with Ramon doing colours, but Ramon hit a wall time-wise and so Kalman ended up colouring the last of it. Oh, also, Kalman used his lovely girlfriend Cristina as the photo reference for the lead character, which was shocking when I met her later. Other than that, I have no idea how they did what they did, but it looked great, seriously. I was so incredibly pleased when I saw the pages come in, utterly unlike what I had imagined and much better… Again, I can’t say enough about how talented and professional Kalman and Ramon are. Hire these guys.
Here we see Cristina next to her in-book counterpart.
The first page of art, sans colouring.Â
Here we see Cristina and Kalman, posing as characters on the second page of the story.
On the left are Kalman’s ‘pencils’, which are actually done via graphics tablet on the computer. Kalman integrates his photo ref and then “inks” the whole think tighter on another layer.
And, the final result. A sinister, angry series of reds.
After that I lettered it myself (I am occasionally a professional letterer). You know what they say about all writers being forced to letter their own work? I completely agree. I actually did a good solid edit during the lettering stage, and made the text flow a little better in spots (and fit in the balloon). I ran it by some friends for corrections, and we were good to go. It turns out in the end, that we weren’t even the latest story in the book! :)
TWO YEARS LATER
It’s a little over two years since I first roped Kalman and Ramon in, and two years on I’ve got a number of observations on the piece. For one, it reads a hell of a lot better if you linger on each panel… if you read comics the way I do (which is very, very quickly) then the whole thing comes off as really disjointed. I tried to make a point of showing a significant time jump between panels, but it’s up to the reader to notice and pause, despite the visual clues. I just read the story for the first time in at least 7 months, and I just zoomed through it, and it didn’t work. A slower read works better, I think. Ah well.
The other thing I’m noticing is that the narration for the first few pages is sloppy. I wrote it sloppy on purpose–it’s supposed to be a sort of a dramatic diary entry from a young person–but… yeah. I was trying to show a clear progression from angry adolescent to a smart woman with her shit together, and I think that’s there, but some of that is painful to read. Probably not as painful as livejournal entries though…
I think the art is still excellent though, all the way through. I really rushed these guys and it doesn’t show anywhere. Both Kalman and Ramon have gone on to better things, but I’m still happy every time I see these pages. If you want to see more of their work, you can find Kalman online at http://www.horhaus.com/weblogs/kalmangallery/, and more on Ramon at http://www.ramon-perez.com/.
As for reaction to the story? Critically it has been mixed, some good, some bad. Eric Stephenson mentioned to me that it was one of the favourites of the folks in the Image offices, which was heartening to hear. Doug Wolk tore the book (and my story in particular) apart on Salon.com. The first reviewer at Amazon.com ‘got it’ and liked it… But the best story? Two or three weeks after the book’s release I’m at a party, and someone asks me about the book and we’re talking about my story, and another woman turns around and says “wait, ‘Expectations’ in that new Belle and Sebastian comic? You wrote that? I LOVED that.” and she just sort of stares at me. That was weird, and great. I think I said thank you, and blushed. It was really great that a woman, about my age, who probably went through school at about the same time I did and listened to all this music as well… that she liked it, and that it spoke to her.
Because there are a lot of sad girls out there, and in the end they can overcome and be fabulous. :)
(Thanks for reading.)
(Also, I put the whole script below behind the “cut”. Just click on “continue reading this entry” to read the script.)