My entry for the Cape/Comica/Observer graphic short story competition, 2015

It’s that time of the year again, when the shortlisted artists for the Observer/Cape/Comica graphic short story prize will have been notified.

Once again, my email inbox is inexplicably empty (INORITE, some mistake surely), so I’m sure it’s fine to share my entry now. 

As in previous years, I’ll be collecting any others I can find and linking to them in a big round-up post, although, gotta say, I’ve barely seen any mention from other entrants yet. Hopefully everyone else is just waiting like I was, and will start putting them online soon. If you’ve done so, let me know!

Meanwhile, please enjoy “Whatever Works”. As usual, you can click each image to see it more clearly.

Whatever Works by Myfanwy Tristram P1 lowres

Whatever Works by Myfanwy Tristram P2 lowres

Whatever Works by Myfanwy Tristram P3 lowres

Whatever Works by Myfanwy Tristram P4 lowres

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Why I’m not out to play much this month: nine steps to make a comic strip

coloured in comic by Myfanwy Tristram

 

As you know, because I’m always moaning about it, cartoons are a really labour intensive form of artwork.

Back when I first got into comics, I’d draw directly onto the page with pen. “The page” was often the back of an A4 letter, or a cheap pad.

Sometimes I hadn’t even figured out the end of the strip when I was drawing the beginning. But that’s ok, because it was the days of Riot Grrls and photocopied zines and so many people *weren’t* drawing comics that you were way ahead just because you were.

The end result was a strip in which there might be some pleasing parts, but where there would always, always be at least one frame that made me cringe. The only thing this ‘method’ (if you can call it that) has to recommend it is that it’s quick – but as we all know, a little preparation goes a long way.

Time passed and I got a little more ‘fancy’ (ha). I started drawing my strips out in pencil first, then drawing with pen over the top and erasing the pencil lines.

This obviously has the advantage that you can rub out and redraw if your first pictures don’t look quite right, all before you start inking. You can also start thinking about layout and composition across the whole page, while you still have time to incorporate any great ideas that may crop up.

But there are disadvantages to this method, too: smudged ink, or pencil lines that just won’t erase, no matter how hard you try. I started drawing this way long before computers and Photoshop came into my life, so it’s not as if I could tidy things up digitally, either.

It’s really only relatively recently that I have refined my comic-drawing process. In part, I have to thank generous artists like Sarah McIntyre and Dan Berry, who talk a lot about their own processes (and in the case of Dan, produce a podcast talking to many other cartoon artists about their processes). It’s all gradually sunk in.

I’m working on a piece at the moment which, by the end, will have gone through, let me see… nine different stages, I think. Let’s count them out.

1. The initial idea

Inspired by a vintage photo I saw, I decided I wanted to do something around the idea of synchronised swimming.

So that I wouldn’t forget it, I noted the idea down on my phone.

2. The script

I knew I wanted this cartoon to be four pages long. I knew I could make the story fit nicely into that length. But how do you get from a subject and the desired length to an an actual script?

In between steps 1 and 2, there’s a period of time which consists of forcing myself really hard to think about the topic until a story pops to the surface. I think the last two lines of that note on the phone came later, during this process.

Writing the script down is a way of consolidating the story and making sure it can be spread across the length of cartoon that I want to make.

3. Character studies

Character studies by Myfanwy TristramI’m a bit impatient about this stage; once I have an idea, I often want to dive right in.

But drawing your characters (in many different ways, often, and then you pick the look you prefer) is a really useful step.

It means that their faces or hairstyles won’t change as the cartoon progresses, because I’ve already made all the decisions and I’ll have my  studies to refer to from the very off.

4. Thumbnails 1

Scratch thumbnails by Myfanwy TristramI think that this is one stage more than most cartoonists would do, and it does annoy me, but it turns out this is the way I have to work, and so be it.

First, I take a biro and a really scrappy bit of paper. This is a psychological way of telling myself that it’s fine to make mistakes, which I seem to need.

I already have the script I wrote, and that has pretty well divided the story into pages and frames within each page. What this first set of thumbnails does is help me make sure that those divisions are right.

This would also be the time to figure out any fancy layouts: not that there are any in this particular piece of work, but, say there was going to be a big plane flying across the page, or a large boot stomping down, now is the time I can work through all the difficulties I’ve given myself with that decision.

5: Thumbnails 2

Better thumbnails by Myfanwy TristramMy second set of thumbnails is larger, and transposes these decisions (which often contain lots of scribbling and notes) into a more coherent page. I use a big felt tip or a brush pen, again just to try and concentrate on basics rather than fine drawing.

At this stage I’m also trying to ensure that any words will fit into the speech bubbles and frames I’ve allocated them.

And, once that’s finished, I hunt down my husband and (if age-appropriate) my daughter and I read it through to them. If it makes sense to them, great. If they have questions, I know there’s still work to do.

6: Pencils

Margins by Myfanwy TristramNow is the point where I have to measure pages, frames and margins and make sure the finished work is going to be the right size for whatever printed medium it will end up on (I might work 1.5 size or even double size, in which case there’s even more maths involved).

Drawing comics continues to be a learning process for me, and this time around I added two new practices that I hope will pay off.

First: after drawing the first page’s outer margins, I stuck it on the lightbox and traced the other three pages, so I know they will be exactly the same size.

For some reason, no matter how carefully I measure, I *always* seem to end up with differing size pages (I blame the ruler, which is obviously changing length while I’m not looking at it), so hopefully this will see the end of that for good.

Second: Long-time readers will know that I’m forever moaning about trying to scan, and then fit together, pages that are larger than my A4 scanner.

This time, thinking ahead, I made sure that every page has a good clear break somewhere within the zone where A4 pages (ie, the size of my scanner) overlap. Hopefully, this will mean that I can scan the page in two goes, crop to this clear line, and fit them together without my usual issues of trying to precisely fit the page together in the middle of a figure or a piece of text.

pencils by Myfanwy Tristram Once the margins are drawn, I start drawing the cartoon in pencil, in its entirety. I do this on a page of not-so-good sketch paper: it won’t be seen, so there’s no point in wasting the expensive stuff.

Notice that this was the *very first* thing I did in the olden days. So everything that has come before represents just how much longer the process is now. It’s worth it though. My cartoons still aren’t as good as I’d like them to be, but they look a whole lot more professional.

I’m not the sort of artist who can always summon up figures and poses off the top of my head, so there’s a lot of rubbing out involved, and sometimes I have to google for images as a reference.

Sometimes there’s so much rubbing out involved that I have to start a frame again on a new piece of paper – the beauty of this method is that I can.

7: Line

cartoon before colouring by Myfanwy TristramThe cartoon I’m working on is line drawings with ink colouring.

First I put down the pen lines. I put the pencilled page on the lightbox, put a sheet of better-quality paper on top, and trace the drawings and frames with pen.

8: Inks

coloured in comic by Myfanwy TristramAnd then I add the colour.

9: Scan

Does this count as a step? I guess so: the cartoon takes on a different format, a digital one. And there’s often more work involved, too: I clean it up digitally, before sharing it online or in print.

And then, finally, it’s done.

The takeaway

No wonder it all takes such a long time! You might frown at all this and call it the death of spontaneity.

I wouldn’t go back to my old ways though… well, unless I suddenly became an amazing artist who could conjure up perfect pictures first time, every time. Or, y’know, on Hourly Comics Day.

This method breaks the process into such small steps that none of them feels too daunting. It also allows for the possibility of something going wrong at every single step.

Measured up your pages wrong? You’ll notice before you start inking, not, disastrously, once you’ve finished. Spill ink all over your page? No worries, you still have your pencilled sheets. And so on.

Multi-step processes like this can look really off-putting, I know. I still blanch at bookbinding or screenprinting, terribly afraid that I’m going to miss out a crucial step, and lose all my work.

For me, cartooning feels different, because I learned and tried out every step along the way. Also, there’s no expensive equipment involved (the most expensive part is the lightbox, but you can easily use a window on a sunny day, or a glass table with a light under it), and no-one to tut at you if you don’t follow a prescribed method.

My method’s changed a lot over the years, as I’ve described, and I expect it’ll continue to do so. How do you draw comics? Give me your tips and who knows, maybe they’ll also become part of my process.

Comics Unmasked, Posy Simmonds and Steve Bell

Comics Unmasked poster

Comics Unmasked poster “Have you read Posy?” asked the elderly woman who slipped into the seat beside me. “How did you first hear of her?”

I thought back: “Well, the Webers were part of my childhood – my parents took the Guardian”, I said – but I could have added how, later in life, once I’d discovered a passion for illustration and cartooning, she became a hero of mine.

Or how, during the early years of parenting, when it’s hard to fit in any art appreciation, I was still able to admire Simmonds’ deft characterisations, when I read to my daughter from Lulu and the Flying Babies, or Baker Cat.

What I particularly noticed in those years was how she captured the blank, podgy face of a toddler so well, or a baby’s form, all wrapped up in winter layers- representations so pertinent to my own life that I could see how truthful they were.

I might also have mentioned that ‘Posy’ had been high on my list of names, should a second child ever have made an appearance – but by that time the lights had dimmed and the event – a chat between Posy and her contemporary, risqué political cartoonist Steve Bell – was beginning.

 

I travelled up to London on one of the hottest days of the year, leaving the slightly more bearable coastal temperatures to step into the hot soup that was passing for air in the capital. Thankfully, my destination was the British Library, meaning only a five minute walk between air-conditioned station and air-conditioned interior.

I’d booked to see the Comics Unmasked exhibition – an in-depth history of British publications – followed by this talk. The exhibition took, as publicised, a good time to view. With comics, you’re not just glancing at each exhibit, but reading it, a few minutes for each one – and there were hundreds on display.

It was an interesting selection, featuring those comics which loomed large in my own life, from Spellbound and the Beano to Deadline and Crisis, and giving due deference to the UK’s acknowledged masters Alan Moore and Grant Morrison – and introducing many publications that were completely new to me.

Exhibits included political comics through the years: sexually permissive editions from the Seventies, and a strong strand of women’s liberation from the Suffragettes onwards (I would contend that the Suffragette material wasn’t ‘comics’ as such, but it was still interesting to see).

There were two high points for me: seeing plenty of original artwork (just for mundane comparisons with my own work, like whether artists worked at double size, and whether they stuck down the lettering after the artwork was complete), and – a bit of a surprise, this – a fifteenth century bible, done in woodcut cartoon form.

Sometimes you see an ancient artwork that still speaks to you as clearly as it presumably spoke to its intended audience all those centuries ago: the hand-painted colour choices and the thick lines, were just like one of the pulp comics from the Seventies, although they showed angels hovering above dragons, rather than tanks or Action Man.

I had time to bake a little more in the still-oppressive heat before heading into the auditorium for Bell and Simmonds’ talk. It was a genial chat, and they generously spoke for over 90 minutes, accompanied by a dual slideshow of their work, from juvenalia to the present day. posyandsteve bed of watercressAs with the exhibition, the parts I found most fascinating were when Posy (in particular) described her working methods.

She showed many character sketches: “I always work in sketchbooks first”, and spoke of going on location to research not just scenery, but vocabulary too: “I try to get their lingo right, which usually means riding on buses… drawing a graphic novel, you do location, props, make-up… it’s like doing a film”.

And, she said, you can’t just draw a location once: you’ll need it in different weathers – what does it look like in the rain? – and at night.

Simmonds says she works on an A2 pad, and showed us a page divided into three. She writes the dialogue and narrative in one column, then tries to condense it down as much as possible, sometimes going through this process three or four times, because space is so precious: her favourite panels are the ones where she can tell the story without the need for speech balloons.

For stories like Tamara Drewe, she sketches out the floorplan of the houses and a map of the village, so everyone’s always entering from the right direction, etc. posy workings Bell was clearly as much a fan of Simmonds as any of us: “You were the only reason I bought the Guardian” was one of his opening lines, as he revealed, to disbelieving laughter, that his family had always read the Daily Mail.

Steve has drawn all his life – zombies, trains and war as a child, then ‘every station in South Buckinghamshire’ as a teenager.

He puts his early employment as a cartoonist down to ‘dogged persistence, taking my wares around”, and the way he tells it, that certainly seems to be the case, as he went back to see editors several times with his work. The back of Post Simmonds by Myfanwy Tristram (Here’s my sketch of Posy: as you can see, I picked a really lousy spot for actually seeing her face)

After the talk, I bought Tamara Drewe and got it signed – then travelled all the way home to Brighton on a hot train, revelling in it.

I think that Posy Simmonds has just about attained the highest peak of the graphic novel form. When you look at her work, it’s incredible what she’s done: she plots as well as a novelist, but then has to unfold this story, with all its subtleties, through drawings so accurate that you can tell what characters are thinking through the cast of their eyes, or the slant of a mouth.

Often, cartoonists rely on great artwork carrying a weak story, or vice versa – and it’s nice to know the form  can actually still work under these conditions (there were plenty of examples of both in the exhibition, many reassuringly badly drawn, yet still compelling).

But my goodness, when one woman does both, well – you wonder why she hasn’t been elevated to some sort of national treasure status. Maybe because it’s “just cartoons”.