January 22, 2010

Drawing Comics by Designer, Visual Artist and Aspiring Writer George Starr

When I discovered that my friend, George Starr, moonlighted as a comics storyteller, I was surprised—mostly because he’s been at it for a while. It was only after several months that I learned about George’s illustrated stories. He kept it under wraps before formally announcing his latest self-published work, which was part of an already established body of work at his Etsy online store Newton & The Goatboy. His DIY approach is a highlight, in addition to his keeping it tight-lipped until he was comfortable in sharing it. Making something first to have something worth telling about is admirable.

George shared a lot about his lifelong passion for comics, which he devotes much hands-on time to in visualizing his story ideas. In addition to his thoughts on why and how he draws comics, make sure to check out his visual process, afterwards.

Can you please tell a little bit about yourself?
Where are you from? What do you do for a living?

I’m a designer, visual artist and sometime-aspiring writer who’s always had an interest in comics. I grew up on the north side of Chicago, and currently live with my wife in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. In my day job, I’m an art director at a Chicago ad agency.

How did you arrive at the idea of making comics?
When I was five-years-old my mother bought me my very first comic book, an issue of “World’s Finest Comics” (below), which featured not only Superman, but Batman as well. It had one of those great 1970’s-era covers, the kind with half a sentence of double-punctuated copy on it that virtually screamed for the viewer’s attention. In this case, it said something like “Some say the world will end in FIRE … some say in ICE!”

The visual was split down the middle with Superman in front of a heat-wave-blistered Metropolis, and Batman shrouded in his cape against a frozen-over Gotham City. Great archetypal stuff, easily accessible and visually dynamic. Suffice it to say, it kept me quiet on the drive home from the grocery store.

When I started school, I began making little comic strips about my teacher or about other kids in class, which I would then trade with my classmates. The interception of one of these comics by my teacher led to my first visit to the principal’s office, and to the scandal of having my parents called in. The idea that drawing could be illicit sent me mixed messages—but from that point on, I was hooked.

Throughout high school, I filled countless spiral notebooks with character designs, spaceships, made-up languages and alien animals, but when I got to college, I just sort of gave up on comics. I decided to try other mediums. It took 15 years before I realized that I should give comics another try.

How do you arrive at ideas for stories and what is your process
in transforming them into comics?

Some ideas come from funny scenarios I’ve been in, but many more come from ones I’ve imagined being in. Often I’ll be joking around with my friends and we’ll get into a game of “out absurd the other guy.” We’ll be sitting at a restaurant and imagine the most ridiculous premise we can and then add to it or try and top it with something more ridiculous. Obviously this whole thing is just us goofing around. But recently I’ve started seeing some of these ideas as possible material for comics. I’ve also begun taking the personalities of people I encounter and matching them up with different groups of inanimate objects. It sounds a little strange but some pretty funny stuff has come out of it.

Other ideas come from overheard conversations. That’s actually what my first comic is about, overheard work conversations. They’re things I heard over a period of several years, most of it quite ignorant, and at the time it really pissed me off. After a while, though, I decided the best way to counter that stuff was to release it into the world outside my office, let the ridiculousness of the statements speak for themselves and let others share in my annoyance. Of course, I changed the names, and everyone became one of my stylized animal creatures. But the text is real. After the book was done, it proved to be very cathartic for me.

I’ve also got a bunch of yet unfinished stories that reflect my interest in the sciences. Some of it is pretty standard sci-fi, but I’m a bit of a stickler for using real scientific principles in fiction. I’m not sure I’d call it “hard sci-fi.” It’s more the idea that the beauty of the Universe as seen through basic scientific tenets gets used as a device (and I hope not a gimmick).

I’ve just started to delve into making books about my own personal experiences—ones that aren’t necessarily funny, that is. This area is probably the scariest in terms of exposing your innermost stuff to the world. I don’t know how successful or interesting this will be, but I’m starting to give it a try.

I carry a small sketchbook with me and use it to jot down thoughts and observations. These often become titles for possible books later on. Sometimes looking back on these titles sparks something. “Triangle Versus Square” started out this way. I was thinking about a war between two groups of “shape-headed” people drawn in a really simple style. When I found myself at a creative roadblock one day I scanned my list of potential titles and came across “Triangles Vs Squares” (it was originally plural). I happened to mention the title to my wife and something she said combined itself with thoughts about a book I’d just read on the sad, sad life of the circus elephant Jumbo. I abandoned the war idea, scribbled out a “script” and spent the next six months drawing it.

Process-wise, all of my comics are initially hand-drawn in pencil (process below). If the book is black-and-white, I then continue in traditional pen-and-ink. For color, I use the computer. I’ve been using Illustrator, rather than Photoshop, to digitally color stuff. It’s just a preference, but I really like the clean shapes and forms of vector-based art, and I love the ability to re-scale elements without resolution loss.

For the type of notebook I use, it’s a small 4 in. x 6 in. “Cachet by Daler Rowney” brand hardbound sketchbook.

What is the most rewarding part of making comics?
The most rewarding thing for me is being able to express myself without external constraints. While I appreciate the challenges of being creative within the parameters of my day job, there are times it can also feel pretty stifling. In my comics, I can create my own worlds and my own moments within those worlds. I don’t know if they’re worlds anyone else will be interested in necessarily, but they’re places and events I enjoy thinking about.

It’s also been very rewarding being able to pull from different aspects of my creative life. I’ve struggled with painting, and I’ve struggled with prose. But I feel a different connection to my comic book work: it seems to be creatively clicking for me.

Is there a part of the work that is particularly trying
and how do you deal with it?

Even though I’m a visual artist, creating the artwork for my comics can sometimes get laborious believe it or not. It depends on the project and the art style of course, but sometimes my neurotic side gets the better of me and I descend into this downward spiral of trying to create ever finer and finer detail in my drawings. Once that happens, if I don’t pull back, the book is usually lost. I tend to want to move on to other things, because the pressure to make things “perfect” gets to be too much. I have a couple of unfinished graphic novels that will probably never get finished because of this. I’m always trying to remind myself not to get precious about things. I’m trying to learn to trust that the work is good enough and then to put it out into the world.

What is your advice to people who aspire to tell stories
as comics or graphic novels?

If you can draw or like to draw, grab a sketchpad, find a place where you won’t be disturbed and start doodling. Drawn characters often create their own personalities. Just as with people, body language and expression speak volumes. It’s possible to write a story around a good doodle. One of my biggest comics heroes is the Norwegian cartoonist Jason. With the smallest movements from panel to panel, a minimal amount of text, and a tiny tweak of an expression, he is able to impart the most heart-rending, passionate or hilarious things in his books. His graphic novels “Hey, Wait...” and “Sshhhh!” are perfect examples of this. He’s absolutely amazing.

If you’re a writer and you don’t already have a story in mind, think about the stories you’re attracted to then think about the stories you haven’t seen yet but would like to see. The things you daydream about, especially if they recur, are a good place to start. If you find yourself saying “that book could have been so much better if only...” or “that movie would have been great if they had only...”, see what you could do to fix it. Forget “write what you know”, instead write what you feel, write what you’re connected to. Most of all: be honest with your writing, and don’t worry about whether other people will get it. Don’t judge your work before you’ve had a chance to start. Tell yourself that no one else will ever see or read it if that helps, but just dive in. Make the book for you, the one you’d like to read.

Any future plans for your visual storytelling
that you want to share?

I’m working on two very different books right now. One is called “Molecule.” It’s partly inspired by the Charles and Ray Eames film “Powers of Ten.” It’s also a bit of homage to the worldview of another great hero of mine, Carl Sagan. It’s about the idea that when you really get down to it, all things are connected. Obviously, the theme isn’t new, but I’m hoping I’ve got a slightly different way of stating this. Right now, the plan is to make the book completely text-less and rely on image alone to tell the story.

The other book I’ve just started work on is called “Titusville.” It’s my first stab at doing a very personal, autobiographical story. It’s named after the town in Florida adjacent to Cape Canaveral, and is based on two rather difficult trips I’ve taken there with my parents. I also have a sequel to “You’re Dead to Me” in the works called “Still Dead to Me,” and several scripts for things that might end up as web comics. I’ve just started in this medium and obviously have a ton to learn, so a lot of what I’m doing right now is exploring. The way I try to look at it is: even if I fail, at least I’m having fun!

Drawing for “Triangle Versus Square”
All my drawings start with pencils. Here I’ve finished the rough pencils for the background and for the character Triangle-man and have begun inking them.

I continue adding detail and cross-hatching to the foreground character and fill in the background using a stippling effect for the smoke.

As the inking continues, I start to pencil in the background character He-Square.

For the finished drawing I erase all the pencil lines, scan in the drawing, select all the negative spaces and remove any noise or paper artifacts in Photoshop. I then adjust the contrast to achieve solid whites by tweaking levels (the ink itself tends to be black enough for production).

Panel for You’re Dead to Me
Again, I start with pencils. Here, I’ve done a very rough sketch to nail down the overall proportions and body language of the character as he appears at this point in the story. The tick marks act as guides for the final panel size.

After looking at the sketch in context, I re-draw it, tweaking elements that weren’t quite working the first time.

Once I’m happy with the sketch, I scan it in. I then use it as an “underlay” in Illustrator as I begin re-drawing it in color. With the drawing as vector art I can fine-tune colors as I move through the book, and further refine proportions and details.

The finished, colored panel.

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