Maelstrom: Process

In the previous part I talked about some of the influences and inspirations that helped shape the overall look and feel of the comic, but now let’s get into how it all came together. As I’ve previously stated, I did one page a week, aside from taking one break to do some Halloween art and spending a little more time on the last double page spread. How was I able to achieve this? Well, having no dialogue certainly helped, and so did working at 9×12″ instead of the industry standard 11×17″. Surely, I had every page carefully planned out beforehand with a steady buffer so all I had to do was some inking and scanning, then drop a page each week, right? Nope, not even close!

The second printing is in! You can now get a copy on Etsy if you missed out.

Despite having around the first six or so pages in thumbnail form in my sketchbook, and a basic outline partially written before starting the first page, I did not always stay so far ahead with my plans. Some weeks I had to take time to go back to the outline and write a bit, or jump back to the sketchbook and hatch out more thumbnails. There were even some weeks I was flying by the seat of my pants with no clear direction of how the next page might be laid out. I didn’t even know how it was going to end until about half way through. Although later on I came up with an ending I thought was even more fitting and went with that instead.

A typical sketchbook page. Nothing too fancy, got no time for that!

Generally the first couple days out of the week were spent working on the pencils. Depending on the complexity of the page, the pencils could end up taking a day or two longer. When I ink, I can get into a groove and keep working for longer periods of time, only stopping when I need ink to dry. Of course, I often make mistakes and smudge ink that hasn’t dried yet, which means either finding a creative way to cover it up, or whiting it out later. More often than not, I would forget to go back and fix a mistake before uploading the page. In fact, many of the pages were uploaded before they were completely finished, but they were in a good enough state where I was comfortable with sharing them. Getting the pages done and out there was of greater importance than perfection for this project. Fixing minor mistakes and adding finishing touches are things that could be done later, and I did just that for the print version.

The process wasn’t always a simple case of pencils, then inks. I often would go back and start making changes to the pencils even after I started inking or would start inking before pencils were entirely finished. The whole project was done in an almost haphazard way at times, which made it a bit difficult to share WIPs. Plus, taking time to photograph or scan pages in progress would take away precious time that could be spent just working on it and finishing it. It can interrupt my flow and I’d rather strike while the iron’s hot.

For inking, I primarily work with pens, specifically dip pens, on Bristol paper. I use the Japanese G nib for a lot of the outlines, but it can also be used for details and hatching since it is very flexible. My other main tool is the Hunt 102, aka the crow quill. I’ve been using the crow quill pretty much since I’ve started drawing comics and it’s my main tool for hatching, stippling, and other details. Sometimes I break out the maru nib, which is almost a Japanese analog to the crow quill that can produce even thinner lines. I find it can be pretty finicky, and even tear the paper because it’s so thin, but when it works, it works beautifully.

The tools of of the trade from left to right: G nib, maru nib, Hunt 102, Pentel Pocket Brush Pen, old brushes, Uni-Ball Signo, 0.7mm and 0.5mm lead mechanical pencils

While pens are my main jam, I do use brushes for the black areas. One thing that really helped speed up the process was the Pentel Pocket Brush pen. I find it easier to use than traditional sable hair brushes and it’s more convenient since I don’t have to make sure I have the brush properly loaded with ink. Anyone who uses brushes to ink knows that even getting the right consistency of water and ink loaded in the brush so it can flow just right is an art in and of itself. The downside of the brush pen, of course, is having to buy cartridges to refill it. Thankfully, there are ways of getting around that. For many of the dry brush, stamping textures, and splatters I simply use old brushes with splayed bristles. Don’t throw out your old brushes, they can be great for making all kinds of interesting textures for bushes, trees, grass, stone, or crazy lines for intense scenes. And lastly, I use a Uni-Ball Signo for white, not only for corrections, but also white on black techniques to create a different effect.

The initial sketch of the hands on separate paper and the finished Page 15

One thing that helped me get things done more quickly was a light box. Now don’t get excited, it’s not one of those massive professional grade monstrosities, just one of those little USB ones. It worked perfectly for what I needed it for and saved a few headaches. For instance, on Page 15 I knew the hands would be very difficult to get right. I have a tendency of over-working a drawing to the point where everything gets messed up- pencil marks scratch the paper, excessive erasing leaving visible smudges, and smudging away other parts of the drawing and having to draw over them again. To avoid all of that, I used the light box to quickly transfer the gist of the figure I had on the Bristol paper on to a separate sheet of printer paper. On that sheet of printer paper I worked out the hands, and since it wasn’t the final page, I could be as heavy handed as I wanted. Once I was more or less satisfied with the hands, I used the light box to trace them onto the Bristol Paper where I then added more details, shading, and final touches.

Another way in which the light box saved time was with perspective grids. Laying down perspective grids by hand is a huge pain, not to mention very time consuming. Good thing computers exist and can do it for us! Enter Clip Studio Paint (it goes on sale often, be on the look out). I’ll put the cards right on the table and say I’m no digital artist at all. I have an age old Wacom tablet and I’ll be damned if I can get even an elementary school art class level drawing with it. What I used Clip Studio for was its perspective grids. I would scan in the page I was working on, set up a grid and lay down some lines. Then I printed them out, and used the light box to draw on top of them for the final drawing.

I can hear you say “that’s cheating!” And a younger, more naive me would’ve agreed with you. But is it? Wally Wood always used to say “Never draw anything you can copy, never copy anything you can trace, never trace anything you can cut out and paste up.” And in an interview with Cartoonist Kayfabe, Dave Gibbons said he used Clip Studio’s perspective grids in his work. If it’s good enough for the dude who drew Watchmen… In fact, Cartoonist Kayfabe’s video (above) on how they make grids and borders is what got me thinking about using a light box in the first place. They even go a step further and print their grids and thumbnails directly on their board in non-photo blue.

Page 10, the only page that was scrapped and redone

Perhaps Page 10 of Maelstrom is the best example of how I used perspective grids. Initially, I had already started inking on the page but wasn’t happy with how the ship looked. It lacked weight and had no sense of depth– it looked like kid playing with a toy boat in the tub! I scrapped the page and started over. I had the hand and the rest of the layout generally hatched out, so I was able to salvage that with the light box. Once I figured out how big I wanted the ship to be, I scanned the rough sketch and laid out the two-point grid in Clip Studio, then printed it out. Drawing on top of that grid with the light box helped immensely with getting the whole scene to look more believable. Of course, ships have a curvature to them, and the ship itself was getting crushed, so I still had to do a lot of freehand drawing. The grid was just a guide to help me keep things even and make the perspective convincing. Even through I had to make a few compromises to finish the page on time, I’ll always have a soft spot for it since I managed to save it and get the effect I wanted.

Little tricks like using a light box for tracing areas that I didn’t want to draw again entirely from scratch, and Clip Studio’s perspective grids, helped save time. The time saved I was able to spend on making the rest of the story all the more detailed and interesting. Those little bits of hours, minutes, or even seconds, saved from automating tedious tasks really adds up over the course of a year. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have been able to keep up the weekly schedule. Well, I still was late quite a few weeks, especially towards the end of the project. I can only imagine it would have taken even longer if I didn’t have these tools at my disposal.

Hit up my Etsy if you want one. This 2nd printing isn’t selling out at an alarming rate, so there’s no rush if you’re on the fence!

That being said, I’m still surprised I was able to see this through to the end. I had no idea when I started that Maelstrom would end up being nearly 50 pages long. Part of that can be attributed to lock-down. My logic was, if no one is going anywhere, then there’s no longer any need to rush or get a product out. No one had any money to spend on something as frivolous as a comic, anyway. My initial idea of doing a weird little experiment around 15-20 pages was no longer necessary. I decided to extend and expand some sequences, including the ending which was originally shorter and simpler. I could fully commit to the old manga artist mentality of constantly raising the level of intensity. “Once you think you’ve gone too far, you still haven’t gone far enough,” was one of my driving thoughts. That, and a quote oft attributed to Jack Kirby, “done is better than perfect.”

I suppose that about wraps it up. I would like to thank you all for joining me on this strange and twisted journey. What lies next for me, I am not exactly sure. When I started Maelstrom, I assumed no one would be interested and most would see it as a self-indulgent passion project, but it ended up being my most successful comic yet. So who knows? I also have an awful habit of making a follow-up project a complete 180 from the previous one, which essentially alienates all of the audience I built up. Maybe I’ll surprise myself again or maybe I’ll crash and burn again. Or I’ll just try to get some sleep…

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