Friday, June 21, 2024

Spruce Moose

This year's Visual Art Academy students got a surprise show & tell

Happy Solstice! Special to regular readers I’m sneaking in a bonus midnight post about a recent project before it hits any other social media platforms. While I’m not gonna upload everything about the entire process here, as that would probably break a blogsite record on length, I do have some particular highlights I want to share along with some insights gained over the course of what was definitely the longest commission I’d ever had.
Join me below the fold for more...

The entire project took approximately five months, from initial query to delivery of the final (final, final) print version, and since a big point is for viewers to get a physical copy and read the actual comic book, everything posted here will only be samples of specific stages in the overall progression. You’ll just have to catch it at a soon-to-be-announced signing (stay ‘tooned), at an upcoming show, or catch a lecture in one of my classes to see the full finished spread. And as I mention at the closing here, I’ll have to follow up with a flip-through of the finished publication as like a storytime session.

Also a note that the sequence of images here are not synced to the accompanying blocks of text, they are rather posted in order of the project’s overall flowering – the captions will encapsulate a topic which will be addressed elsewhere in the verbage, which was loosely adapted from stream-of-consciousness mental notes whilst documenting everything every step of the way.

The origins of the origin story as scripted by my commissioner

One major difference between these images posted here and the printed version is that up until about 85% of the way towards the project being done, there wasn’t any words, except for at the very end (last page), so as to maximize their impact. This decision was also deliberately pitched so as to accommodate an audience that might not get words – or even be literate to begin with. So the primary challenge for me was to tell the story primarily through pictures, emphasizing the pantomime. To these ends, all the tricks of the trade were employed, and what was an already short script became an extremely compact and fast-moving narrative. Much of this can be attributed to my strength in sequential art being the humble gag panel, so merciless editing of all extraneous details made for telling a tight tale across ten pages.

Some of my many reference pictures taken of tools, equipment and gear

When captions (text boxes) were first introduced it was at only on the landing page (and the last page for extra-added emphasis) to establish a setting and orient the reader to where the story taking place. That then expanded into a similar block or two of words in one main panel on each page. The only place that didn’t work was the page with one giant splash-panel (the wildfire + fleeing animals, which was adapted into a back page image), as there wasn’t any room even after trying with various phrases (none of which seemed to work beyond the repetitive redundant description of illustrated activity. That’s the breaking point between an awful lot of mostly mainstream comics that fail to take full advantage of the main inherent power of sequential art – the juxtaposition of image + text (as per McCloud), with a symbiotic relationship between the two.

Lots of feedback and constant communication over attention to details

This project wound up literally illustrating the difference between Fine Art versus Commercial: using my talent and skill to accomplish the vision of someone else (“how much?” directly linked to “how high?”), as opposed to letting me wander across the open range and do whatever I want. A lot of the time when you have experience, a personal style, the challenge of working with freelance clients can be reaching an amalgamation of what YOU do as contrasted against what THEY want – it might not be seeing the same picture. An example of this is my moose – pretty unique, as in they don’t really look like that. Are you getting paid to do your version, or one that more people would more easily identify as what it actually looks like? Why use an artist when clipart or Disney-fied commercial rendering would arguably work better? To what degree is there give and take between the two often-competing visions? It can be even trickier when there is no buffering art director between you and the client (or worse – a committee). 

Regardless of the final form it evolved into, I remain immensely pleased... and paradoxically inspired. Now I’m even more unhappy about not doing what I really want to do, which is tell some of the longer stories I still have simmering on the proverbial back warmer. But, as exactly the same situation it always is when making Fine Art, along the way there was some frustration, and elation, the usual amalgamation of highs & lows. The same creative process including self-doubt, confronting inner challenges with pushing into new scenarios and situations. An example in this was planes: while over the years I have grudgingly managed to realistically render trucks, or at least recognizably. Not planes – I learned how much I suck at those. Again, each gig leads me to learn new trivia and lore, and getting pushed out of my comfort zone goes with the new territory.

A few samples of the thumbnail roughs that were the next round of submissions

It was pointed out to me by the Significant Otter that technically this in fact is my actual first-ever solo comic book. Which set me back on my mental heels a bit since it seemed so weird to have taught about it for so long, lecturing at length, not to mention having taken so many classes about making comics all those years – nice to know all I’ve ever researched, read, written, and drawn was true, and worked like a charm. I’m so used to stretching out the “accordion of cartooning” from single-panels to strips, multipanels and one-pagers that this was just another point along the continuum of comics. A neat result of this immersion is now how relatively fast I can knock out regular gag panels – along with some other unintended consequences.

The main result of this I how now I really really really want to invest some time + energy towards producing some longer pieces. Regular readers have heard this familiar refrain, and it’s a seminal complaint how the eternal Great American Graphic Novel keeps getting suspended into indefinite hiatus on account of life getting in the way, mainly how all the little Nuggets + teaching occupy most of my creative output + energy. First-world problems I know – not complaining - just that I’m increasingly surrounded with acquaintances who are retiring, and so finally getting around to pursuing some other interests now that they have the time (those that aren’t actually twice as busy as they’ve ever been before). Personally I’m planning on dropping in harness, and the last time I think I took an actual vacation where I didn’t even doodle was over my honeymoon – coincidentally a factor in my potential divorce.

A third stage was reviewing & revising the full-sized penciled pages

Now my credit I had extensive personal experience with cranking out large-scale projects before – including regular longform multi-pagers and standalone one pagers, the years doing 24 Hour Comics Day, and like with comics poetry, also not to mention the many years of shepherding countless comics by students in the comics classes (and regular drawing studios as well). All of which went hand-in-glove (or maybe lead-in-pencil?) with teaching about how to do exactly what I set out to do. Speaking of pencils, this also marked a first time completely using one up just over the rough sketches stage – and also ran out a new bottle of ink while on the final pages. Hell even my clicker finger got cramped at the very end… looks like it’s time to invest in a new Ipad + digital pencil/stylus anyways… it looks to be about time to jump ship from Photoshop/Adobe products anyways.

After the inks were approved, we moved on to the digital coloring, and then final revisions + tweaks
Hand-in-glove with this gig was overseeing two independent students who were undergoing their own minimum ten-page projects for the spring semester (David being one, and Sine the other). We met weekly at one of their studios for review and some bonus review sessions with either recent alum or practicing professionals from the creative community. Note that it was one of the best-ever classes I ever attended much less “taught” (more like open the door and get out the way). I initially figured on “let me show ya’ll how it’s done,” which, it turns out, I did – by way of watching someone gradually get smothered by all the other extraneous activity associated with being full-time faculty and desperately attempting to maintain my own personal output like the panel plus herding proverbial cats on all the upcoming shows etc.

Bonus pages or items for activity day handouts

And true to my solemn vow last year to tie off any and all freelance clients (based on botching a couple big tickets up), when first approached at an early morning cafĂ© sketchbook session with the initially query I said saying thank you kindly but no, I’ve put an across the board stop on any and all freelance so absolutely not, “…unless you have a shitload of money,” which they did, so in turn I sold out like THAT “… well then have a seat sir”). And so a very special thanks to Doug and to Jessi for the patronage & patience, and I appreciated all the input + insights (and reference pics), along with all the valuable feedback, from everyone else at Forestry. Of everything I’ve ever worked on so far I can’t remember hearing and seeing firsthand how excited folk got, that was the most inspiring kick in the creative pants to get a charge with the positivity.

Sample process page + the adapted back cover

A couple kinda neato last little details: one being my homage to the original animal "spokesbear" with a hat-tip to the origin story of Smokey on page seven. The state of Alaska might be, according to one of my review committee, the only state with it's own dedicated logo/character, as everybody else uses the federal critter. A second personal artistic license was granted on a significant deviation from the thumbnail roughs that were initially submitted for the last page. It occurred to me the family who started it all (both the comic book and the fire) wouldn’t return as the heroes since they’d all still presumably be stuck behind bars. Hence the small herd of critters instead saving the day, and the forest, and countless lives. Also include were a few bonus pages of material, like a coloring page, a gear chart, and some process samples, that might potentially be used as filler, depending on how many pages will ultimately get printed. I can’t wait!

One of the opportunities to look at everything all at once before migrating to digital - certainly made a big pile of art

Lots of upcoming outreach events that I’ll post about, soon as proofs are over and the finished product is in hand – have to do an “unboxing” – like maybe a storytime short. In the meantime enjoy these special behind the scenes process pics, as the entire project certainly was educational, and being a teacher, I can’t wait to show & tell it some more, so it’ll certainly be one of the tentpole pieces for the tenth and final retrospective at the distillery come this January. CHEERS!

The core ten pages, sans text/caption boxes and missing a few final revisions/edits

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