This is the (very long) process for developing the visual identity, assets, and actual comic pages of a zine. This project is ongoing and will be updated as new content becomes available.
The majority of my writing projects start with something small – a string of words I hear, an image, a very loose concept or idea, etc. This project started 2 years ago when I was doing a daily drawing challenge around different types of monsters. I had the idea for a rock-wraith called The Desert King and developed a story from there. I figured out the narrative flow as well as settings and some rough characters designs (seen below), but didn’t move on from there. This is very common for my writing projects. I often come up with the key parts of a story and will put it on the back burner either due to time restraints, or, as in the case of this story, because I felt I didn’t have the right artistic style for the project at the time.
I feel very strongly that how you tell a story is just as important as the story you tell, so I wanted to wait to continue progress until I had the right “how” – in this case, the right drawing style.
Fast forwards two years to July 2016 and I’ve picked “The Desert King” back up. There are a few things important to this story and I try to keep them in mind in all stages of the process:
- The overall message is about environmental destruction. I studied Environmental Philosophy/Ethics during my undergrad and it often comes up in my work as it’s something I’m deeply passionate about. My approach is heavily influenced by Hayao Miyazaki’s method of story telling; Western messages about environmentalism are very black and white, often leaving no room for subtlety of any kind. Miyazaki has been present in all stages of my life, and one of the biggest things I love about his work is that he includes spirits and beings who can directly speak on behalf of the environment they live in. The conversation about the environment isn’t just a one-sided human only thing, it has multiple voices and highlights the levels of grey morality inherent to any dilemma.
- As with any visual development project, the characters should reflect their environment and situation. The audience should be able to tell who they are, where they come from (roughly), and what kind of personalities they have just by looking at them.
- There are two major environments, a dry desert and a fecund landscape. They are technically the same place so there must be landmarks – ideally subtle – to indicate that they are one and the same.
- The three human characters are siblings, they must look different but have characteristics that tie them together
- I’m trying to push myself with these designs. Clothing is easy for me; stylization less so. I want there to be a strong sense of shape, form, and silhouette for everything in the story.
I started out with a couple red line sketches. As per my mandate to push myself with designs I’m referencing a variety of faces to get the right shapes and structures down for each character. The references are from humanae.tumblr.com.
I mentally referenced North African and Middle Eastern clothing for the basis of all the character’s clothing since they live in a desert climate. I have a large collection of costume history books and have read through many books in various university libraries. I typically do not need to have visual references for costumes unless I’m looking up something very specific. I don’t want their clothing to be too close to their real-world counterparts to avoid chances of cultural appropriation. I also want to show a clear distinction between the King’s clothing and the humans’ – he’s very old and well off so he can be more opulent and also have less modern clothing. I decided to give the humans more slick, geometric clothing to imply modernity and to distance them from real cultures.
I liked the roughs I did here so I moved onto a new file to make cleaner designs based off the rough sketches. I started with their under layer of clothing and planned on making a second layer once it was complete. I also lined them up to figure out heights. The human girl is the eldest of the siblings (early-mid 20s?) with the human boy not much younger than her but still in that lanky phase many young men go through. I thought it would be endearing, and also surprising, for the human form of the Desert King to be a rather short man to contrast the terror of his rock wraith form. As per normal I went rough red line -> inks -> colours.
I quickly decided that I liked the Desert King’s design, but not the others, and as a result only continued work on his. This was in part due to the fact that I have his character the most fully formed in my head right now, so designing him is easy, and also in part because I didn’t feel the two humans felt right. Their designs were too clunky and I really didn’t like the human boy’s face. I also found that while inking them my normal inking style made them too stiff and heavy. I decided that I’d have to change my approach towards my inks, and likely my method of shading in the final art.
Quick side notes about my methods and reasoning behind the King’s design (AKA the only one I like right now).
The King’s character has two forms, the wraith and the small, opulent man. He is meant to be the physical embodiment of the environment the humans live in, with the implication that all areas in the world have some sort of entity ruling over them in this world. His form reflects the environment he is currently in: in the mortal realm where the environment is a barren, dry desert he is seen as a terrifying wraith; in the spirit realm where the landscape is fecund he is a well dressed human man, plants grow where he steps and out from his overcoat. The human realm is terrifying and inhospitable, whereas the spirit realm is lush and welcoming. I made his clothing, and overall shape for his human form slope down towards the ground, keeping him visually grounded and emphasizing his small stature. He is, at his core, a metaphor for the duality of life and nature. All things will die in time, but new things will grow from their midst. The collapse of an environment, though deeply saddening, will give rise to a new one.
One of the major features I wanted to focus on with his design was his face. Under his scarf his skin is broken away, like the cracked desert the humans live in. Even he is not immune to the cycle of death and rebirth, and his two forms are not entirely separate from one another.
I wanted this to be a major reveal midway through, so I had to cover it up. I hoped that since I was relying on Middle Eastern/North African clothing as my reference point that the viewer would see his face covering and associate it with cultural identity, not as something obviously hiding something important. At the same time, I wanted the viewer to question why it was there. My reference point would typically see that kind of face covering on a woman, not a man. The rest of his clothing implies wealth, maybe ego, but not modesty. The design of Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite (seen below) gets at what I’m trying to accomplish with this character the best. Her design is normal, nothing really out of the ordinary for her character, environment, and setting, except that she wears a thimble on her pinky, a pinky that’s one bone short. I spent the entire game, a game that deals with all kinds of twists and turns, asking ‘What happened to her pinky?’ ‘Why is her pinky missing a phalange?’. Something so small was the biggest reveal and the most heart breaking moment (aside from the ending). I hope the King’s scarf is the thimble for my readers.
Figured out why I didn’t like Calim’s (human boy) design. He his, at his core, a very compassionate young man. The King even jokes midway through the story that “his compassion will be his downfall,” and depending on your interpretation of the ending, it is. The sketches above were waaayyyy too geometric and strict looking for such a soft young man. I still wanted to keep the tall lankiness but had to soften it out.
Rounding out the edges of his pants and also adding a wrap around (kind of like a skort from the 90’s) got his where he needed to be. I think the wrap around almost snuggles him, making his seem cozy and welcoming though that might just be the ramblings of a serial snuggler (me). Scanned these in an added the sketch to the line up I already begun working on. I still wasn’t keen on his face so I ended up just freehanding it and ignoring structure to just feel it out – which, surprisingly, worked.
This image skips a bunch of in between stages which were mostly erasing small areas, filling areas, rinse, dry, repeat, etc. When I started this project I knew I didn’t want to use my normal inking style and found during the last batch of sketches that even the black fill for their hair was too heavy. So instead I made a small number of line patterns to use as mask fills. This idea was pretty much born out of my use of textures in my other work as well as old ink illustrations; I love how old ink illustrations use a single line weight and different directions and lengths to imply shape and variation in form. I didn’t want to do something like that exactly (very time consuming for a comic) but something in that same family of ideas.
I’ve made patterns that can easily be filled in using masks to apply to set areas of each character. It saves a lot of time and keeps things visually consistent. All three patterns are just a couple lines repeated and moved or rotated. I also made a few sketches traditionally and am torn between inking this by hand (more fluid) and keeping the above style.
I also started doing some ideations for environments and non-character art approach.
As mentioned earlier I needed to find a way to clearly mark both environments seen in the story as the same despite their obvious differences. Originally I thought rocky outcrops might be interesting but that didn’t mesh with the ideas I had for the fecund spirit world. I’d been thinking about the desert in the human world first and molding the spirit world to it, which was silly because most of the story takes place in the spirit world. So, shift things around. The King is first introduced in his human form sitting in a large tree, what if that tree was in both worlds? A lush, overgrown tree in the spirit world and a dry shell in the human? I started playing with that idea on paper and will continue with it as I move forward.
Also thought about how to handle things like the wraith.
I like the idea of using a single texture to make its form – it clearly demarcates it as something not of this world. However, I still need to work on how to approach the environment. I need to pull in far more ink and less shade. Looks like I have a lot to work on.
I hadn’t been working on this project much between Aug2016-Dec2016 due to working a lot on printmaking. These rough sketches were all I did during that time:
But in January I picked this project back up. I think it was mostly because I’d hit a bit of a stand-still with this project again. I did a sketch to play around with the idea of heavy line use and masking in line-based textures into areas for shade.
I still wasn’t feeling it. I liked the line weight and had begun making more textures to integrate into the environments more like I had been doing with the characters. The contrast wasn’t high enough and to make the contrast higher I would likely have to rethink my approach entirely or spend a lot more time on each panel than I’d ideally want to.
Then I talked with a studio-mate and we were discussing comics and zines. He asked me if I’d ever worked with risograph, a logical question for someone working in both comics and screenprinting. And then it hit me. Do this comic in riso! Then I could add in colour for contrast but not have to worry about excessive time spent on each page. So now I’m working on tests to play with my 2-toned riso idea.
Basically the process (as I’ve figured it out so far) is all line work in teal, which is the top and dominant colour. Multiply areas as needed to make an under layer of yellow and erase parts of the teal lines to make greens or yellows as necessary. Do the same for shade areas. Now that I’m confident about this process I’m likely going to actually start doing storyboarding. I didn’t want to start storyboarding until I was certain on an approach so that I could take the limitations of my final approach into account when laying out the flow of the panels/pages.
Finished the image above and have settled into this style. It works for everything I’m trying to do with this story and have begun doing rough boarding. I plan on boarding everything before doing pencils. Having worked on shorter zines or webcomics in the past this will be the first time I board 40-50 pages in one go and see a story this size in its entirety prior to getting into inks/toning. Here’s the first 5 pages.
I’m trying to keep the pages a lot more open than past comics. I tended to fill the pages to the brim due to restricted page numbers or printing limitations but for this project the aim is to push myself and really enjoy the story to the fullest. I’m beginning to consider doing a kickstarter once all the pages are complete to print the book seeing as how it will be fairly sizable and done in riso which isn’t cheap (at least not compared to b/w photocopies).