Director’s Commentary posts are all about turning the FPI blog over to an artist to allow them to talk about their latest thing. And I’m delighted to be able to introduce Andi Watson for a commentary.
Making comics since the early 90s, his bibliography has an eclectic feel; there’s a little Buffy, a couple of Marvel things, a couple of DC, even an Aliens thing for Dark Horse. But it has always been Watson’s more personal works that really impress those who love his work. Whether it’s the emotional adult fare of Breakfast Afternoon, Dumped, Little Star, and Slow News Day, the fun romps of Skeleton Key, Love Fights, and Clubbing, or his more recent all-ages work in Princess At Midnight, Glister, and Gum Girl, there’s a rare beauty in his work.
Nominated for many major comic awards, the one award he may not be aware of is being the only comic artist to have works beloved by all three members of the Bruton household. For Molly it’s Glister, I have a different favourite depending on mood, but right now it’s Dumped, whilst Louise, my comic tolerating beloved, read Breakfast Afternoon and adored it many years ago, and remembers it still.
Watson’s currently working with Walker Books, who’ve already published four volumes of the wonderful Glister series. His latest work, also four volumes, is the full-colour, larger format, bubblegum pop style Gum Girl.
But enough, here’s Andi Watson….
“Grace Gibson has just moved to Catastrophe where her dad is the new head teacher at Calamity Primary School.
This is a place where disaster rules the day. Meteors fall from the sky. Volcanoes erupt. Giant robots roam the streets. Villains are on the loose. And evil geniuses are plotting revenge on a daily basis. What’s more, no one seems to care.
But, one day, a chance accident up in the loft with an old chemistry set and a stick of bubblegum leads Grace to an extraordinary discovery. It’s going to save her life. In fact, it’s going to save the lives of everyone in Catastrophe. But she has to keep it a secret. And, for that, she will need a whole new identity…”
I’ve chosen a page from Gum Girl Book 2 Tentacles of Doom because I happen to have a record of the pencils. Usually I’ve inked them over without scanning them first. Gum Girl is my new series for children published by Walker books. Book 1 Catastrophe Calling is out now, Book 2 is out in August. Two more will follow.
Before I even get to the point of writing a script there are a few hoops I’ve already struggled through. What I can’t show is the pages and pages of scibbled notes as I work over ideas for stories. Often I’ve a good idea but it doesn’t pan out into a full script. Sometimes I have an idea and ride with it and it comes out first time. Mostly I latch onto an idea I like and then thrash out how it’s going to work as a story.
Anyway, all those scribbled ideas end up in the bin and I’m left with a synopsis. The synopsis is a key part of the process, a single typed sheet laying out all the main beats of the story. If it doesn’t work at this stage then it won’t work as a full script.
When I work with an editor they like to see a full script, that way it’s easy to visualise the story, and because it’s typed they can shoot down the worst typos before I start. A full script is the story broken down into pages and panels with panel descriptions and dialogue. On different books in the past I haven’t written a full script. On the one hand it allows for a bit more flexibility in tweaking things if I’m working from notes and thumbnails. On the other, having a full script gives me the peace of mind that I’ve fit everything in that needs to be there. Editing bits out is part of the scripting process and skipping past a full script is the sneaky way of postponing tough decisions on what has to go. There’s never enough “room” in comics, so scenes and bits of dialogue have to be snipped. Each Gum Girl story is twenty pages long, with three stories in each book. Twenty pages with a beginning middle and an end is a really good discipline for keeping things concise and snappy.
Thumbnails are the little scribbles I make to see what fits on each page, what the (very) rough panel compositions are going to be like, and if I need to move a panel from one page onto another. It’s more about figuring the beats and rhythms of the panels and pages, where a revelation might fit best, at the end of a page, on a spread, or on a page turn. Best to figure out what needs to go where before moving on to the next stage.
These thumbs [above - ed.] are from Glister and the Faerie Host, I must have binned the relevant scribbles for this Gum Girl page I’m highlighting.
Layouts. I’d never done these before working on Gum Girl, a rough script and thumbnails were enough before I was diving in to my books. I print out the dialogue from the full script, cut it out and place it on a sheet of scrap paper before roughly penciling what the finished page will look like. I find it’s very useful for balloon placement and generally sorting out the flow of the page, reading from panel to panel and balloon to balloon. It’s the kind of thing a reader doesn’t notice unless it’s done wrong. Not being certain which is the next panel to read (if I ever think I need an arrow to direct the eye from one to panel to another then I know I need to rework it) or mixing up which piece of dialogue comes before another messes up the flow of a page and chucks a reader out of the experience.
This stage also clarifies any areas where I might have crossing balloon tails…a sure sign I haven’t staged a scene properly, and how much dialogue to include, and if I need to snip a line of two. This is all stuff that I hope is part of the invisible architecture of a page and isn’t consciously picked up on by the reader. Most of thinking work is done so it’s on to the next stage.
Lettering. I started hand lettering with the Glister series. Part of me felt like I wasn’t a proper cartoonist because I wasn’t lettering my own work, but using a (very good) font by Woodrow Phoenix. As I was doing everything else myself, often completing design and colours and whatnot, I felt lettering was the next challenge.
Hand lettering is a pain in the butt, it’s time consuming and finicky and just plain hard. It took me a long time to get the hang of it. The upside is that it’s another part of the comic that is unique to me. No one else has the same look, and I think the hand crafted type complements the artwork. Unfortunately, there may be no going back!
I letter on a separate sheet, cut it out and lay it on the ruled page. I pencil in the balloons and panel borders and then start penciling.
Penciling is fun. A lot of the thinking and planning is out of the way so I can concentrate on facial expressions and making sure the proportions are accurate.
I tend to draw in a decent quality sketchbook so I can be portable and have work on hand if and when a day’s broken up. I’ve never used Bristol board or anything super expensive. I like to use materials that are widely available, so if I run out I’m not worrying about tracking down obscure items. Working on pricey paper would freak me out, I’d be worried about messing up an expensive page before I’d even put pencil to paper. I use certain pens and paper but I’m not into the fetish side of art supplies, Moleskines and such. I drew my first book, Samurai Jam, with Berol felt-tips and copier paper.
Inking. Once I’m happy with the pencils (they’re not very tight) I break out the pen and start inking. Gum Girl is full of rounded shapes and generally has a uniform line width. Because I’m drawing for colour I tend to leave a lot of open areas and make sure all the lines meet, that way it’s easier to colour. I like to listen to podcasts and music while inking, it’s more of a motor function by this point. It’s often a frustrating struggle, but the whole story doesn’t hinge on my inking a foot correctly. I try not to mess up the work I did right at the penciling stage.
Inks complete, I erase the pencil lines and see what needs fixing. I’ll tweak areas of the drawing and use a bit of tippex to tidy up. Occasionally I’ll realise a panel I’ve struggled with is beyond salvation, so I’ll draw it on a separate sheet and glue it on to the page. Some people call these a patch, I think they’re more of a figleaf to hide one’s embarrassment.
I take the lettering and glue it on to the page. It’s only now that I know that the page is balanced, there’s not too much dialogue, and that it all seems to gel. I scan in the page, take ages cleaning up and fixing my lettering and then I’m ready to colour.
I colour in Photoshop, a program I’ve been using for years. Gum Girl’s style requires a lot of gradients and shiny surfaces, so it’s a different approach than I’ve used before. I incorporate a few ben day dot patterns and use a bright, friendly palette. Gum Girl’s my first full colour book so I’m still learning as I go.
There’re always a few missteps, cursing and eyestrain along the way, but eventually I get a coloured page I’m happy with. I save often … the horror of losing a coloured page I haven’t saved is heartbreaking.
The last thing to do is select all the lettering and save it on a different layer. Then I’m done. Repeat the next day.
FPI would like to thank Andi for taking the time to take us through the process. Gum Girl Volume 1; Catastrophe Calling is available right now, published by Walker Books. The second book of the series Tentacles Of Doom is published in August 2012.
You can catch up with Watson at his website, there’s lots to see and do on the Gum Girl blog, and his lovely all-ages comic Princess At Midnight is currently being serialised as a webcomic, in colour, a page every Saturday.