Making of a Dirtfarm Comic!
Where the magic happens:
This is my little office.
1. Regular old #2 pencil + pink eraser:
I never graduated to nicer pencils or better erasers. I go through so many pencils anyway, so it’s for the best. I can never find one when I need one. I’ve always liked the pink erasers better than other erasers for some reason also. Not sure why.
I’m a fan. I like real brushes also, but this pen is way convenient. You can get replacement cartridges & nibs for them also. It was kind of expensive, but then I’ve had it for years and have drawn almost all of the comics with it. It uses pretty shoddy ink, but I did some tests a long time ago and found that it scans better than some higher quality ink / brush combos.
3. Fat Sharpie:
Yup. There it is.
4. Pentel Energels:
You can get these in any office supply store. They come in 2 sizes: 0.7 & 1.0. I’ve probably used 5000 of these. They don’t last very long, but they never ever clog, and can be used until they’re entirely used up. The ink also dries pretty fast so they don’t smudge as easily as some other pens.
5. “Online” brand fountain pen:
This is a German Calligraphy pen I bought in New Orleans the last time I was home. It came with 3 nibs, and also takes cartridges. I haven’t had it very long. It’s still in testing. It was also pretty expensive. I guess I like it OK, but it does have a few issues. It clogs if it isn’t used very frequently, and I’ve had some issues with the ink cartridges (IE: getting ink all over everything). It’s way better than most fountain pens I’ve tried, and if I keep it clean (which I don’t) it works pretty well. I need to get some pen cleaner. I hear the Rapidograph pen cleaner is pretty good. Haven’t tried it yet. I’ve used this pen for lettering a few times. It’s great for that. I also drew most of this Sock Comic with it. I’m still kind of in the never ending search for the perfect fountain pen though. This one is OK, but let me know if you have any suggestions.
I’ve also been through many many other pens. I could talk about pens & art supplies pretty much indefinitely.
6. Light Box:
I found this in a thrift store for $5 several years ago. Pretty awesome. I’ve always wanted a bigger one, but never got around to getting one. I also have a huge one (the size of a table), but I like that this one is portable. It’d be nice to have one about twice as big though like all the super cool tattoo guys have.
7. Tape dispenser & Scissors!!!:
Anyone who worked for the DC CityPaper might regognize these guys. I worked there for several years before Creative Loafing bought it and moved all of production to Atlanta. I got a bunch of good supplies out of that arrangement (including the flat file which is pictured below).
100lb. I usually just buy whatever Bristol is on sale. This is usually it. For the first year of drawing the comic, I didn’t even bother to use good paper. I just used regular computer paper. I still do sometimes when I’m in a rush. The way I draw these, there is rarely any finished art. It’s all production art. I’ve been meaning to clean up a lot of the older panels and start selling them. That idea’s been in the works for several years though, and I still haven’t ever sold a single Dirtfarm panel. It’ll happen eventually though.
This is where the comic usually starts. I carry around a sketchbook & a composition book everywhere I go, and scribble nonsense in them. I have about 20 sketchbooks and about 50 of these compostion books at this point. I’ve been using them since high school. I fill about 4-5 of them a year. I don’t bother trying to keep them neat. I like the ruled pages because with them there, I can’t bother to care about what’s going into them. These pages are mainly used to throw up on and scribble stuff out as quickly as possible. I rarely even use the lines. I also keep sketchbooks for “nicer” drawings, but really who am I kidding? I really can’t draw that well. Some people’s sketchbooks are like finished masterpieces. Mine are usually just filled with shoddy drawings and bad attempts at cross hatching. A lot of the older sketchbooks do have better drawings in them, but after doing the comic every week for 4+ years I rarely have the energy anymore to bother to try to draw well for my own amusement. It is a bummer.
The notebooks are where it all starts though. They’re not very coherent, but they make sense to me. This is where the good stuff is. I find that most ideas are really only at their purest form in the crappy sketches inside the busted notebooks that they came from. It’s a lot easier to capture an expression or a gesture with a quickly scribbled line that you don’t have to think about as you draw it. For this reason, my favorite comics have always been ones that show little or no artistic talent whatsoever and are crappily assembled in the middle of the night at kinkos by nerdy punk kids. That, and I like the more nonsensical B Kliban comics a great deal. I have lots of other influences as well. Too many to list.
I also get a lot of last minute ideas (as ANYONE who knows me well will tell you) over IM. When I first started drawing comics, I used to always try to bring them around to people and make them read them in front of me (which I know is awkward, but that’s kind of the point). I hardly ever see anyone these days though, so I have to use IM. When you show something to an actual physical real in the flesh person you can almost always gauge whether or not something works or not. It’s funny. Most people will give an awkward laugh no matter what (the same way people respond with “haha” over IM). Regardless of the awkward laugh, I can always tell if something works or not by watching someone read something. It’s an odd thing, and has to be seen.
IM is really good for coming up with an idea and snowballing it with another person until it’s a lot better of an idea. This is of course also way better in person, but it’s an OK substitute. Without my friends, and especially those I endlessly bug over IM every week about the stupid comic, I would have definitely stopped drawing it long long ago. I owe a lot to them.
So yeah. Basically, I “cheat”. Blasphemous I know, but I do half of the comic in InDesign (Adobe’s layout program). Some weeks, I do most of it in InDesign. I like this method for a lot of reasons though, the main one being that it would take a hell of a lot longer to do them 100% by hand (and they already can take between 2 & 20 hours to do regardless, so this really isn’t an option).
I’ve also always done them right at deadline every week. I just can’t do it any other way. If there was no deadline, I wouldn’t bother to do them at all, and if I tried to do them in advance I’d hate them so much by the time deadline rolled around that I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to send them in.
But yes, this is the basic blank template.
Another huge advantage of doing comics in InDesign is being able to use libraries. When I first started it, I scanned all sorts of different sizes of ripped paper for all the little elements. This is the pretty standard format (pictured above), but it’s nice to break format every now and then. When I first started the comic, my only real concern was that it have 100% flexibility. I didn’t want to have a story line, or a formula, or anything else that I had to stick to (including the template). I like that I can use pretty much any number of panels I want or need in order to illustrate an idea and still stay within the same overall size requirements. The only thing that can’t change is the overall dimensions of it. Everything else can be broken or bent or can completely stray from the standard format. I like that.
I also keep all the section logos in the libraries (fappy, baldie, manatee, etc.) When I’m hard pressed for time and don’t have any ideas (pretty much every week), I’ll sometimes do a bottom comic just using elements from the library. That’s basically why manatee was invented. I use Fappy whenever I don’t have any main comic ideas, and manatee whenever I don’t have any bottom comic ideas. I figure if I can’t come up with anything at all, I can always just abuse the stupid seal. Seems to work.
In an ideal week, I’ll have an idea set in my head and I’ll just start production work on it from the get go. This rarely ever happens though. It used to happen a lot more earlier on, but doesn’t happen as much nowadays. Some ideas just work and flow out and piece together and evolve as they get made. Those are the fun ones. That’s a rarity though. Most of them are a hair pulling, head scratching, beat your head against the table until something finally comes out or you at least decide to finally commit to some crappy idea and just hope for the best. I usually stay up all night doing these (typically on Sunday nights). I try to start by 10 or 11pm, and try to finish by like 9am (though lately they’ve been taking me until as late as 2pm or even 5pm). It’s really a lot of work. I don’t really know how it happens even, but it does somehow. I try to have a rule that I at the very least need to commit to an idea by 4am. This gives me about 5 hours to come up with something, and 5-10 hours to make it happen. Kind of ridiculous I know, but that’s how it happens.
This is another reason I like doing these in InDesign. I usually leave notes off to the side, and if there’s dialogue or text in the panels, I’ll usually lay it all out in the boxes beforehand. This is generally how they get written. I prefer to write them in the notebook stage, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
I also like laying it out this way because I can change around the order of the panels whenever I want and change the flow of things if need be (or sometimes even change the whole idea).
Once I’ve settled on panels (or more likely once I run out of time), I usually copy the panels into a new document and blow them up a little bit and print them. I leave whatever text inside of them, so I can draw around it. This is especially useful for panels with a lot of dialogue or other text. In general though, I try to cut down on as much text as possible and try to convey the idea primarily through the imagery and character gestures.
This is really the only fun part (other than when in the notebook stage or being finished with one). Sometimes a crappy idea can become OK or even good once you just put stupid imagery to it. Other times the text is what drives it, and it just needs to be illustrated. And sometimes, I’ll start with something and then lose it entirely in a cloud of delirium and come up with something entirely different. This sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. I’ve had lots of ideas self-destruct during this stage, and will look back on the original non-delirium fueled idea and can see where the train derailed.
I usually sit with a clip board in front of google images to draw these. For me, I don’t really care so much if something is drawn “well”. I would definitely rather it look nice than not, but I realized long ago that I’ll never be able to draw amazingly well like a lot of (really most) other comic artists. I realized this the first time I went to Comicon in San Diego and pretty much gave up on that idea there and then. I’ve definitely gotten a lot better over the years, but my little blobby people have so many anatomical issues it’s astounding. I’ve always been way more interested in the writing / idea of it than the drawings. I’m also way more into drawing gestures and expressions than actual drawing technique. I fret over the placement of eyeballs more than anything else. You can move an eyeball a few hairs over and have it become something totally different. Sometimes I get in animator mode though which can be really annoying where I’ll draw eyeballs in one position and then draw them in another and can’t decide which position I like better because I start to picture them moving from one position to the next, and can only find them funny when I picture the movement of them.
I don’t think I could draw comics at all without google images and flickr. I just can’t remember details and perspectives. Sometimes google images will even give me ideas I hadn’t thought of through various random searches. I always think about writing to the photographers who influenced certain panels, but never have. I should do that.
“Hey look! Your guy with “feet on desk” photo got turned into clown shoes!!!”
It’s pretty much all basic production work from here on out. I take the penciled panels and copy them on the darkest setting on the copy machine. Sometimes I’ll enlarge them if there’s a lot of details.
I then take the original (penciled panels) and put them in a basket to be filed later, and use the copy from here on out. I take the copy, and tape it to the light box, and then tape my bristol over it so I can trace through it. It’s incredibly efficient to do it this way because you don’t have to worry about erasing pencil marks or messing up your original. If I mess up during this stage, I can just start over. I also sometimes draw stuff off to the side (like alternate eyeballs and mouths to try out during the photoshop stage).
I usually trace from top left to bottom right to minimize smudging. I never really took any drawing classes, so I had to learn all of this stuff the hard way. I usually start with the brush and do all of the fat gestural outlines, and then go in with the pens and do all the details. I only fill in the blacks by hand sometimes. I usually try not to. It’s better to test dark areas by filling them in with black in photoshop later. Quicker too. Just have to remember to close gaps. I use reverse sometimes also (turn black lines into white lines on a black background). When I do this I usually just circle the area I want in reverse so I can remember to do it in photoshop afterwards.
This is a pretty mindless stage of it. I can usually zone out and just go on autopilot while watching cartoons or bad movies or listening to music. For the first year of the comic I listened to the same two albums over and over every week in order to keep track of time.
Once all the panels are inked, I scan them at 600dpi grayscale and convert them to bitmaps (50% threshold). I do cleanup & whatever corrections need to be done in photoshop (which mainly consists of obsessively moving around eyeballs). I also fill in all my black areas at this stage. I try to keep the black areas balanced across the panels, and try to make the darkest areas accentuate where I want the center of the action to be either by putting it behind a white area and thus making it pop out, or in the middle of a white area (like say, a giant smiling mouth looking at something horrifying).
From there, I save them all as individual files and import them into the layout. I usually do little re-writes, and sometimes change the panel order. I’ve even re-written the entire thing a few times at this stage and turned it into something entirely different.
Printout & Testing:
When I started doing the comic, the main reason I wanted to use InDesign was that I wanted to export them as PDFs. PDFs can retain both line art (the comic panels) and grayscale elements (the torn paper and whatever else). I liked all the little drop shadows and liked the flexibility of being able to cut the comic into sections however I wanted. And I like being able to use different typefaces a whole lot (I mainly use Futura, but I’ve used a lot of others). I like hand lettering also, but it would hurt my brain to try to do this every week and also try to make hand lettering look good. It would also be pretty impossible to write and re-write these the way I do with hand lettering. and I’d probably spend 10-20 extra hours trying to get the kerning right; so fonts it is.
I like the way the comics look in PDF form. Unfortunately though, for some unknown reason, some papers can’t print them as PDFs. I’m not sure why. This was never a problem when the comic only ran in the Washington CityPaper (the paper it started in), but once it grew into other papers there were a couple more issues which started to come up. One of them was that the PDFs were not printing properly in some of the papers. So, after I export the PDF, I open it back up in photoshop and up the contrast & save a version of it as line art for those papers. It converts OK I guess, but I like the original version much better. In the bitmap version I lose all of my grays (like pictured above). I usually print it out at this point to make sure it still looks OK.
I also usually save the web version (cropped & 800px wide) at this stage, and post it here (but have to timestamp it to post in the future so that it runs online at the same time it theoretically runs in the papers – though all the papers have different publishing days so it really doesn’t). Sometimes I go through long periods where I can’t stand any of the comics and I stop posting them online. This usually happens around the same time every year (usually during the winter). I’ll get mindlessly depressed and will hate all of the comics and won’t want to have anything to do with the outside world so I’ll just stop posting them. At some point I snap out of it though and post several weeks or months of them at once and often look back on the ones I really hated with a certain fondness. That’s just how it goes.
The other thing that has just recently started to come up is mild censorship. The DC CityPaper and Baltimore CityPaper and the Chicago Reader will seemingly print anything. I never used to have any issues with anything not running because of content. I’ve been kind of amazed by that in some examples. Once I got into more papers though, I started to be asked to censor certain things (this has only happened once or twice actually so it’s not too bad). I really don’t mind doing it. I’d rather it run censored than not run at all. My goal has never really been to offend. I’ve only gotten like 3 or 4 hate mails ever (and one very amusing voicemail once). Censoring panels can be fun also. Sometimes the censored versions become funnier than the original even. I always liked when movies would get censored for TV in the 80′s and they’d just throw in a bunch of weird stuff like “Suck my toes, you milkfaced Bozo!”. So I just try to mimic that.
Once I have the printout, I usually wake Kim up or bug Kim until she reads it all tired-like and either tells me “this is good!” or “i like it, it’s cute” or “eh – it’s ok, not your best” the two last responses of which I either say “dammit. it’s not supposed to be cute!” or if the other, I just usually just get all annoyed and say “God. I hate drawing comics” usually followed by “I don’t know why I bother to do this every week” and “I should really quit doing this. I just don’t have it in me any more.”
But then on good weeks or even OK weeks after I print out the comic, I’ll dance around the house tiredly ecstatic and exclaim “YESSSSS!!!!! I’m FREEEEEEEEEEEE!!!! FOR A WHOLE WEEK!!!!!”
It’s like school letting out for summer as soon as I hear that magical little “email sent” noise.
Archiving / Getting that Sweet Sweet Paycheck:
The last step, and one that also took some figuring out was the process of filing all this crap. Fortunately I got this flat file, which seems to have an unlimited amount of space inside of it. All of the penciled panels, final inked pages, and usually the printout get paper clipped together and put into large labeled envelopes. When I finish a comic, I usually just throw all this stuff into a basket, and then when the basket fills I’ll move it all over to the actual archive. Like I said, I still have every single panel of the comic saved, but one day hope to start selling them.
I also have all the digital copies saved and also backed up onto an external drive. I try to remember to add new characters & section logos to the InDesign library when I’m in archiving mode also.
That’s about it, isn’t it?
Oh wait, no it isn’t!!!!
After that I wait. I wait and wait and wait. And then! Like manna from heaven, I receive a check for $15!!!! Sometimes I get a $25 check also, but not always. In it’s heyday, the comic was pulling in an unheard of $65 a week!! Budgets got cut at most papers, and cartoons were one of the first thing to go.
I did an interview recently for the Chicago Reader about this alongside comic heroes Matt Groening, Tom Tomorrow, Lynda Barry, Max Cannon & others. I also somehow got to tell the story of how I got started drawing this comic in the first place. Pretty cool.
The thing is, it’s never been about the money for me. If anything, the idea of trying to make money from these comics would take whatever fun is left in doing it out of it. Don’t get me wrong. I like making money, but I just can’t worry myself to think about it while in create mode. It’s enough work and stress just to do it at all. I generally support myself through print & web design work & commercial illustrations – or by sitting in an office a few times a week.
Whenever I finish a comic, and particularly on the bad weeks I can’t help but think “Geez. Why the hell do I put myself through this every week?”
Sometimes I have the clarity to remember why I started drawing comics in the first place though. I just have to think about growing up drawing with my friends (and mainly my brother) for hours and days and weeks on end, and passing stuff around the room all during high school and college just to watch people snicker, and all the retarded comic notes I’ve left for people, and all the stuff I used to draw on napkins and book bags and post-its and receipts at restaurants for pretty waitresses, and eventually getting to meet tons of awesome people as the result, and about how back when I used to wash dishes at La Madeleine in Baton Rouge or when I worked in the sporting goods section of K Mart that the only thing I was 100% without a doubt positively sure of was that I wanted to draw comics and be published in papers one day.
And although it’s an absolutely horrifying thought, I hope I can do this forever.
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