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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

I’m happy to report that Bloomsbury has green-lighted my and my co-author Leigh Ann Beaver’s book proposal: Creating Comics. It’s based on our hybrid creative-writing/studio-arts course, which we taught for the second time in spring. We’re busy drafting and illustrating now, plus we asked our students if we could include some their work in the book too. They said yes. So I’ll be happily posting work-in-process material on and off for probably the next year.

Working with Leigh Ann has been a massive learning experience for me, especially since I (like some of our more hesitant student) have uttered the dreaded sentence: “But I can’t draw.” So a lot of our first chapter is about building skill and confidence–mine included.  Here’s the best trick:

Working from photographs, preferably your own, gives a comic real-world specificity. Comics creators from a full range of genres and styles begin by staging a photo shoot. Robyn Warhol describes graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel’s “practice of taking snapshots of herself posing for each of the characters in every frame, then draw from the snapshots … to get every bodily gesture, every wrinkle in the clothing, every angle just right” (7). Bechdel does not reproduce every wrinkle in her actual drawings—her style in Fun Home is relatively sparse—but the poses add realism to what might otherwise appear cartoonish in its simplicity. Working in the Kirbyan dialect and subgenre of horror fantasy, artist Bernie Wrightson created the premiere Swamp Thing episode in House of Secrets #92 (July 1971) by posing friends in the roles of villain, damsel, and hero-monster. Bechdel dressed in a man’s suit and tie looks a lot more like her father than Wrightson’s friend looks like a mud-encrusted swamp creature, but the photographs still provided the necessary gestures and angles to give the comic a naturalistic edge. For his comics adaption of the silent film classic M, Jon J. Muth takes the photographic approach to its extreme:

All of the scenes in M were enacted by people in character. I cast friends, family, and strangers, gathered clothes and props, and decided where each scene would be shot… After directing and photographing a scene, I would make my drawings from the photographs… If I took a poor photograph—one that was over- or underexposed or blurry—then I did a drawing of a poor photo. I didn’t correct anything…. When I duplicated a photograph by drawing it, the drawing extracted a different range of emotions than the photo. This happened though I tried to be as faithful to the photograph as possible… This was a discovery, and not by design.” (192)

And this is the kind of discovery possible only through image making. No script can produce it.

The above illustration demonstrates a range of photo research examples. Each includes an original photograph and a drawing made from it. The goal isn’t fidelity—unless that’s your particular style. Sometimes the drawn image varies significantly, referencing the photo for general ideas. Other times the references are exact but edited—like Leigh Ann’s sparsely arranged bricks. Some of the images are traced on a light board; others are freehand. Chris made the tree and fence in Word Paint. Some of the images add details—Leigh Ann invented those beach balls but copied Godzilla from a website. She also photographed a colleague to copy in brushwork, showing the differences of media too. Our student Anna pulled a photo from her phone to use in her memoir about running, and Mims snapped pictures of her own hands while in class to use for a character. The four-panel strip at the bottom was taken from a class photo shoot with students posed with instruments and in animal masks. Your camera is an invaluable drawing tool. You’ll use it to refine images as well as create original content through your own photo shoots.

Below is my process of turning a photograph into a comics panel (which I definitely won’t be including in the book). I started with an image Lesley forwarded me from her phone.

The part of the photograph I liked most was also the easiest and most fun to draw, so I started there:

Those ground plants were my next favorite:

And once I have a base pattern, it’s easy to manipulate and insert multiple times:

Like everything else, the tree is just a crosshatch of intersecting  straight lines:

There’s no sidewalk in the photo, but I could picture it and liked how the lines interacted with the geometry of the fence:Another base pattern for the smaller tree:

And drop it in:Fill in spaces in the bark for more texture:And why not expand the fence another lopsided wrung?

Sadly, the perspective on the cenral tree was off, so even though I like how the tree in the photo loops in and out of the fence, I rearranged:

And I hoped some invented roots might help with perspective too:My image is hardly photorealism, but the differences are at least interesting:

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