Sunday, February 16, 2020


I have to admit that this one particular panel was perhaps the most satisfyingly so-bad-it's-good one of the year for me personally. It's not too often I stop and sit back in the studio chair after drawing something as profoundly stupid as this and think to myself "how is it that I've never thought of this one before now" - I guess sometimes the easiest and biggest ideas are up too close to see.
The asymmetry really really bugs the hell outta me, so much to the point of each time I see this cartoon it starts to eclipse the quality and simple joy of an impressively dumb gag. Dig the doodle too.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

By The Numbers: “How long does it take you?”

Probably the most-asked question while doing demos, second only to “Where do you get your ideas?” Been a while since I devoted inordinate amount of attention to the nuts + bolts… I’m pretty happy with the pinned pages over on the sidebar about process-themed posts, and there’s never really been anything new to add. Except while in the throes of a recent binge session catching up with the regularly schedules material, and plugging in holes in the production pipeline, there was a noticeable contrast in a few pieces. So I did in fact take the time to keep an eye on a timer, not like racing to beat the clock, but just to get a ballpark approximation. This included occasionally spacing out, internet surfing breaks, peeing off the porch, coffee refills etc. You know, just like a real job (/s).

The drifts are getting deeper...

Taking a batch of five new panels, it became apparent that the average length of time it takes is about two hours, give or take a half-hour. There’s no possible way to quantify the creative process behind coming up with the initial concept – that could be spontaneous, or a protracted struggle with constant edits of rewrites/redraws, or temporary incubation while awaiting a possible better take. In fact all of those happened during this recent spotlighted session of ten new pieces. Also there was the usual random mix of complexity: some were comparatively simple compositions, others buried alive with detail, and a couple that were multi-paneled strips as opposed to the usual single-panel gag format. None were in color, not that that is as much of a factor digitally – as opposed to watercolors, which incidentally accounts for a jump in pricing of original artwork.

Desktop grab: Panels prepped for hours of coloring fun

Penciling takes a half-hour. Inking takes 20-30 minutes (including using markers for first dropping in a ruled border + text for captions/dialogue, then a dip-pen w/India ink on the art). Scanning and subsequent cleaning up is another half an hour, which also covers dragging guidelines in to square up/level off image, tweak lettering, search & destroy missions to track down any errant pixels for deletion (after threshold conversion there’s usually plenty of digital breadcrumbs scattered about). Shading in, the final stage before exporting to various printing & posting formats, takes anywhere from 20-40 minutes. All “tolled,” a couple hours.

By way of contrast, a large, monumental piece I recently finished for an upcoming benefit event took several days (posting a couple teaser shots here: as a hint, since it involved 656 books it probably has something to do with my pet cause of literacy), including a couple obsessive 12+ hour marathon sessions. The degree of complexity was such that I couldn’t possibly pull off the usual MO of “artistic deficit disorder” and expect to bang it out in one sitting – though I tried.

Teaser swatch enlarged for detail

But it stands as testament to how amazing things can turn out if you just slow down and take time. Now that’s completely relative, as for example; the joy of hand-lettering that involves consciously crafting and every individual letter, taking into account line weight, spacing within the word itself, and the surrounding sentence and/or paragraph, all within the confines of a caption box or speech bubble or thought balloon, and the overarching composition of the panel and/or page. Even though it’s a matter of minutes, it still takes time.

Walking the Talk

I also have been sporting a new cap, which is now for all practical purposes a uniform. For many years my pet peeve has been an inability to work without wearing shoes. That gave rise to the Mr. Rogers theory of preparing to spend time in the studio with the habitual routine of changing footwear. But I finally found a company that makes the exact style I prefer and of good quality as a decent price. And it just-so-happened to be on my head for a trail run during this most recent concentrated stint behind the drawing board, and so it stays.

Another key resolution for this year (not a conscious, deliberate New Year’s thing, the timing just sorta happened to work out that way). It goes hand-in-glove with the first tectonic plate shifting under my usual process noted in an upcoming earlier post: when inking in panel borders with a ruler I’ve always traditionally done it as the last thing, as it ties everything together and neatly encapsulated the piece. Trouble is, at least half the time I wind up dragging the marker tip through a spot of undried India ink and that goops up the marker tip. I have always used a Micron 08 nib for the lettering, and for the linework when dropping in the panel borders. This because it’s a subtle aesthetic contrast to use a mechanical line (a “dead” line) as opposed to the more organic, varying line weight of a dip pen. Plus with the latter I can really blaze across a page, much in the same fashion as the truly old-school practitioners did (and still do) with a brush.

Another aspect of long-time usage of Microns has been the annoying tendency for the solid black to lift slightly when erasing, even after drying a while. Even using the usual plastic eraser (Staedtler brand in this instance) it rubs off enough of the opacity that it becomes a noticeable issue, and I resort to doubling down on work-overs so as to offset it. Plus I worry about fading over time in an archival sense too. Bonus: There’s an even thicker nib in the B-2 set I just purchased: I usually use an 08 Micron when ruling out the border & lettering text – I’ll try using this 1.0 instead. Nice bold line weight.

Update: Actually after initial excitement the 1.0 has been disappointing – starting to crap out as in dry enough it takes several slow passes using the ruler to get a good border. Lots of times the problem is long shelf life by the time it gets to Alaska. So I’ll still get another set… not to mention a lot rides on how it holds up after erasing.

Update #2: Very pleased with how the solid darks and more delicate lettering held up. I use a pretty soft plastic eraser, which is a best-case compromise between really getting the penciled sketch marks gone without a trace versus rubbing off some marker. I always try to remember what I lecture my students about: sketch lightly – that takes a degree of finesse and dexterity, plus an awareness and sensitivity to what you are holding in your hands. Hand-crafting is at aesthetic odds with our contemporary push-button culture of clicking.

Mac sleep mode: Option + Command + Power

Sunday, February 9, 2020

"Arctic Beach"

Another relatively rare panel in that it leapt Athenian-like directly from my furrowed, sweaty brow directly upon the blank page, so no preparatory sketches or doodles. Rarer still is when I, just for the hell of it, use a computer-set font in place of my own hand-lettering. I know it is the last stage in legibility, and is employed by a significant number of other professional creators in the field, but it's long been a point of personal satisfaction, and is still a task to take simple pleasure & pride in doing well.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

You Missed A Spot

I recall a couple years ago busting a student in cartooning class doing something dirty on their laptop. While walking around the room checking up on people's progress with their projects, I saw that she was *gasp* zoomed in on a page... and doing artwork at the one pixel-width level. Cue obscure Episode IV quote from the weird art teacher...

Now that's missing the big picture. Which is not to say that I'm not guilty of the same - it's easy to get tunnel vision especially with digital blinders. It merits mentioning, not just on a content level, but really... nobody cares. The details are lost on the majority of readers, not to mention the physical limitations of most media render it moot - HD aside. Maybe a fraction of folks are obsessive enough to critique at the molecular level (it's an aesthetic hallmark of printmakers and photographers), but there are more fundamental concerns that ought to command attention - time suck to say the least.

Just the other day on a recent panel I zoomed in and scrolled around to see a disheartening array of specks left all over one of my cartoons, just before starting to shade in the grayscales. This visual littering, if you will, is on account of two factors: one, I'm a slob; and two, the leftovers are from not setting a proper threshold level before converting my raw scan. It's usually at moments like this that I really miss Freehand (from back in the day) and even Adobe Streamline (even farther back in the realm of antiquities), but I abandoned vectoring my linework many years ago, which has incidentally had a more authenticating effect on my work, since there's no subtle stylistic homogenizing of the image.

clockwise from top left: two specks, one speck, two specks, one speck

Anyways, the above image is an example of the level of detail on four separate areas of an example panel... each at 400%. You can plainly see the offending marks - two panels contain one speck each, and the other two contain two specks each. Trivial? Yes - but at the 300dpi level there might be some ghosting or haloing effect from these tiny hiccups which could potentially create a slightly noticeable irregularity. Far more likely it's just a factor in the perceived psychological purity of an image, as it upsets the harmonious equilibrium that all pen + inkers seek, rendered in binary black and white. Also these protracted search & destroy missions serve an invaluable role in ramping up production with headphones on and slurping the day's first cup of coffee... "top level no mind."

Below is one of those sample specks zoomed in even more, to 3200% - the size of a single pixel. It's like the point of singularity contained within a cartoon... all I need is a blacker black. And if and when I ever breach the event horizon someday while working in the studio, then I'll spend the rest of infinity laughing along with Kazimir Malevich.

Oh wait... maybe I just need to clean my damn monitor

Sunday, February 2, 2020

"G-R-D-uh" aka The Schwa

Okay this particular panel hinges on the "ǝ" symbol and phonetic: after extensive review and input from my ad hoc editorial committee (ie anyone in the cafe) I discovered the demographics of my base was overwhelmingly unfamiliar with linguistic trivia to get it. A fraction of folks thought the symbol was sort of familiar, but still forgotten.
But even still, the Venn diagram of shared knowledge between the "schwa" group and people familiar with the term "giardia" is rather, let's say, specialized - dare I say - elite group. So yeah, in other words, nobody gets it. Still, it ran on account of it being purely my personal favorite of the year.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Mo Meta: Cartooning Facts, Ink & Blood, Graphic Art and Sharpies

I can recall the views out of windows in classrooms of my youth with amazing clarity. That was always my preferred seating arrangements: next to a window. Another reason in-school suspensions were a distinct form of torture, as they were always in a windowless cell. In fact I still have many forms from the principle’s office sent home to the parental units that list the reason for yet another suspension was “creating a disturbance in the in-school suspension room.”

Here’s a secret: One of the habits of highly (un)successful cartoonists is shirking duties and avoiding responsibilities by retreating into your private universe. In other words, faced between the choices of being a grownup OR spending your time drawing… tough call. But seriously – this is still an instinct for me decades later, even after many, many retrospective introspective mullings about what the hell is wrong with me. Deadlines and external pressures mount and yet there’s always something else left to finish penciling, inking, coloring, editing etc.

h/t Barbara

Can’t count how many times I’ve escaped reality through doodling, which is daydreaming but armed with a pen (“I’m WORKING”). Anywhere at any time: it’s like entering an artistic version of a fugue state. Another way I’ve tried to describe it is when Doctor Strange does the astral projection thing. I can even be sitting at the drawing table working away, and that will in turn beget another idea, and then another etc. – the mental Jacob’s Ladder starts up inside and away I go, down the proverbial rabbit-hole of imagination.

My alternate blog title "Ink & Blood"
“The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.”
- T.S. Eliot
“The purpose of cartooning is OW SHIT DAMMIT OW” 
- J.T. Smith
Of course this trance-like state has it’s own potential issues, aptly illustrated by the preceding images. There are some things in life you just can’t ignore – which any cat owner can certainly attest to. Note to self: Always remember to strive to maintain at least a toehold in reality. Or else.

"Graphic Art"
“Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it's a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe” ― Lex Luthor

“Words and pictures are yin and yang. Married, they produce a progeny more interesting than either parent.” ― Dr. Seuss

“Adults...struggle desperately with fiction, demanding constantly that it conform to the rules of everyday life. Adults foolishly demand to know how Superman can possibly fly, or how Batman can possibly run a multibillion-dollar business empire during the day and fight crime at night, when the answer is obvious even to the smallest child: because it's not real.”― Grant Morrison, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human

“Comics deal with two fundamental communicating devices: words and images. Admittedly this is an arbitrary separation. But, since in the modern world of communication they are treated as independent disciplines, it seems valid. Actually, the are derivatives of a single origin and in the skillful employment of words and images lies the expressive potential of the medium.” ― Will Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art

    “At one point in the story, following a brazen daytime bank robbery, Electro is shown escaping from the authorities by climbing up the side of a building, as easily as Spider-Man . . . we see one observer exclaim, "Look!! That strangely-garbed man is racing up the side of the building!" A second man on the street picks up the narrative: "He's holding on to the iron beams in the building by means of electric rays—using them like a magnet!! Incredible!" 
   There are three feelings inspired by this scene. The first is wonder as to why people rarely use the phrase "strangely-garbed" anymore. The second is nostalgia for the bygone era when pedestrians would routinely narrate events occurring in front of them, providing exposition for any casual bystander. And the third is pleasure at the realization that Electro's climbing this building is actually a physically plausible use of his powers.” ― James Kakalios, The Physics of Superheroes
So hey Sharpie - am I a “Micro Influencer” yet?

Sunday, January 26, 2020

"Chickadee Cache"

One of the more endearing species to hang around the cabin, and a frequent subject as of late (fluff and farts and cheeseburgers - not necessarily in that order.

I will say this though: I formerly and publicly disavow any previous derogatory comments I ever made about the rude, voracious behavior of Redpoll hordes. Numbers aside, these Common chickadees give them a run for the money. Or in this case, bird seed, which I'll have to refill the feeder every couple days when this gang of a couple dozen gets up to speed.

On a side note,I have had the distinct pleasure to make the acquaintance of one Boreal chickadee. Not the first one I've ever seen, but this little fellah has certainly made our home his. I have been able to distinguish his behavior from the others not only by appearance and song, but additionally it is the only one of the flock of regulars that feeds mostly off of the suet hanging off to the side of the sunflower seed feeder. The only other species so far this season eating the cakes are a family of Gray Jays plus the 'peckers (Downys and Harries.

Oh and hey - check out the big brains on this bird: how else can it store so much memory? I had some more scientific data to share with you, but appear to have misplaced the link somewhere and can't remember the statistics.

This is an actual photograph documenting the savagery of this species, especially when it moves in large numbers. Think Hitchcockian caliber nightmare material, just much, much smaller beaks (and it would follow that death would take an extremely long time of hundreds and hundreds of pecks.

Here's a sketch of a furtive visitor to the woods around the cabin.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Art/Work: Out & About the 'Banks (Opera Fairbanks + LuLu's)

2019 Run of the Valkyries: Following on the successful incorporation of imagery from the respective chosen opera (see 2018’s Pagliacci), the core of this years design is based on the titular character “Falstaff.”

Which in itself is an obscure homage to the mythological being Herne the Hunter, so I loved exploring all of the possible interpretations and creating something that worked on multiple levels – a funny, attention-grabbing image but with some extra elements of trivia for those in the know.

image h/t reader LJ Evans

And as usual, the proof is in the printing - of a black and white tshirt version, as this will arguably be seen by just as many folks as the full-color image used for marketing.

Another recent manifestation of my art showed up in the form of a spiffy decal on a new arctic entryway constructed at one of my favorite local haunts. Nothing like savoring creative juices in a cup stamped with one of your designs… cheers!


Sunday, January 19, 2020

Parks Highway Towing 2020: "Four Studs" reboot

One of my longest-running clients, Parks Highways Service & Towing, commissioned me again for their 2020 calendar, and this year I got to do a reboot of an old classic.

Last year's panel was a comparatively simpler colorizing gig, but this take reminded me of a similar self-inflicted experiment with "Spring Breakup" that I did earlier.

Even though the concept and core visual items were the same, I went about seeing how much it could be improved upon. On the first pass with the pencil I realized real quick I was gonna run outta room - not just in the panel but on the page itself, as it was on a 9x12" piece of watercolor paper. So erase and try again. This in turn necessitated additional consolidation, which came close to being somewhat cramped, but I felt made for a much more concentrated composition, with the overlapping of shapes reduced to essentially just foreground and background elements. One of the first things to change was shifting the caption up into a text box inset above.

Then after inking and scanning, there was still another set of additional tweaks: had to expand the top border of the frame upwards to accommodate the new, larger text box. Then I digitally added a few more copy + pasted flakes. Compare/contrast with the proof version below, where I set it next to the actual calendar so as to gauge proper fit.

Round two tweaks included: shift the woman’s eyeballs (gaze cue connection with the caption box) + arch the eyebrow, enhance the Nordic dude’s grin, curve shovel blades, and lastly rewrite verbage and replace vertical text box with a new one that fits the space better.

Also while my personal sense of humor has evolved to a much more sophisticated and nuanced level these days, this panel still serves as a great example of how gendered roles are ripe for endless stereotyping, and that even men are victims of an oppressive patriarchal culture when portrayed as one-dimensional robotic automatons, who exist only as props to help weak women with brute force and machismo. Yeah sure, that works here in Alaska - about as well as the equally ridiculous idea that one should have people stashed in the trunk in case of emergencies. At least the palette's somewhat more inclusive.

As usual, my favorite part is having the end product in hand, and seeing the artwork all printed up professionally. They did a great job adding some nice final touches to make a good-looking piece of promotional schwag.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Creating Alaska: "All the 'toons that are (mostly) fit to print"

It's about Jamie Smith by the way

Last Sunday's edition of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner (worth a ) had a really, really nice profile piece done about me by a long-time favorite local critic and one of the best freelance authors in Alaska, David James. A veteran of the Ester Republic days, he had to not only sluice through a big ol' heap of cartoon tailings to get to the, ah, nuggets of the story, but also endured a couple hours of listening to me talk at him an interview that was probably not unlike succumbing to journalistic hypothermia.

In all seriousness like + follow James' pages (linkage here and here) for upcoming events. Oh and also grab a copy of the paper, as there's a bonus joke about shrinkage in the same issue that serves as an excellent example of not only Alaska class, but of why supporting local journalism is a crucial to upholding our democracy. Or hey at least I'm worth a buck-fifty a week. Most of the time.

Seems legit: We knew him when