Newspaper Blues

I used to love newspaper comics.  These days, not so much…and it’s probably a combination of getting older and crankier and thinking everything was better dickety-years ago and the thought that they’re simply not as good as they were or as good as they could be.

I’m not going to endlessly prattle on about how the newspaper industry has changed in 80 years (of course, what hasn’t?) and that comics simply aren’t a priority that they once were.  All you need to do is look at a Sunday comics feature from this year and compare it a comic feature from decades ago.  Comics were a vibrant, amazing art form then.  I loved the Sunday comics growing up but once I saw what Sunday comics used to be, I got a little bummed out that the strips used to be printed much larger and many getting a whole page each week.

I thought newspaper comic strip artists had the best job in the world…and I still think that.  I had always wanted to make a newspaper comic strip and have it ready by millions of people.  The Retros is my chance to do that.  Except of course my comic will likely be seen by less than 20 people and it won’t be in a newspaper.

I also love working with restrictions and limitations.  When I started the Retros, I wanted each page to be a simple, four panel grid.  This limits the layout, storytelling and flow in some ways, but it also forces me to economize.  Each panel has to count and no space is wasted.  Each panel is packed and it’s hard to do that without it looking cramped or too busy.  It’s taking everything I learned from ten years on Uptown Girl and turning it upside-down.  With Uptown Girl I could let a story wander and let the characters just talk and talk and that was fun, but when I started a second series, I wanted the Retros to be very different from Uptown Girl.  They are different in a lot of ways theme-wise, but also vary in storytelling, pace and humor.   The Retros forces me to innovate.  Sometimes too many layout options can get overwhelming but with only four, same sized panels, you only have so many ways to go.

I also decided to make the Retros a black and white comic.  I made this decision for a number of reasons.  Since I self-publish, it’s more affordable to print in black and white.  I’m also used to working with just black and white.  I create textures, I crosshatch and use different line weights.  I am not the best cartoonist in the world, or even on my block but I do okay.  But the main reason I am working in black and white is that I suck at coloring.  I am amazed at how many options Photoshop gives you not only with swatches but also effects and shading and everything else.  Again, this can be overwhelming having so many options.  I’ve tried to learn the more fun techniques but I can’t get the hang of it.  I didn’t want to color the Retros because I knew it wouldn’t look very good.

But lately I’ve been reconsidering.  I’ve also been playing around in color lately with some other projects and having a lot of fun with it.  I’ve been wondering what the Retros would look like in color.  I decided that if I could come up with a style that was interesting using a technique I could get the hang of, I’d give it a shot.

This is where wine comes into play.

I am brilliant after a couple glasses of wine.  Aren’t we all?  I don’t drink that often, and I’ve lost a little weight this year so my tolerance is like, zero.  Anyway, after a long and draining week, my wife and I had some wine and caught up with each other.  I know I am coming off as a total lightweight but I don’t care.  After two glasses of wine, I was tired and mmmmaybe a little drunk.  Shut up.  At any rate, I wasn’t ready to go to sleep and was in no shape to read the book I’m about halfway through.  I picked up a collection of old Superman newspaper comic strips from the 1930’s and started looking at that.  I’ve been reading a lot of newspaper comic strip collections lately, specifically superhero strips from the 30’s and 40’s.

The strips always amaze me.  I love what the cartoonists were able to do with the limits of such small panels and still be able to tell exciting stories.  Since I am drawn (ha ha) to limitations in comics, these strips really interest me.  Like I said earlier, I’ve been interested in color lately and noticed at how few color swatches these comic strips had back then.  This was due to limitations in newspaper printing so most strips were colored very simply with heavy black ink and bright colors.

I had a brilliant idea and decided to try using a very limited palette of color with the Retros.  The next day I woke up (and as you can imagine, I didn’t sleep well) and got to work.  Because that’s what people do, right?  They get up at 5:30am on Saturdays and work?

The first thing I did was scan in the very first Sunday Superman comic strip that originally ran on November 5th, 1939.  Here’s what I scanned and I apologize for the poor picture.  My scanner is smaller than the book the comic was printed in so this is a…ah, lopsided picture of the strip.  I swear I wasn’t having more wine when I took it:

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So yeah, lopsided city.  Once the page was scanned in Photoshop, I made new swatches from the comic.  I think I ended up bringing in about 15 different colors, a couple shades of yellow, red, blue and a few others.

Then I opened up a couple pages from the Retros.  Here they are in glorious black and white:

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I know the second page doesn’t have dialogue, I’ll get to it.

Anyway, I started coloring them and playing around with using ONLY the swatches from the Superman comic.  I realized that I would have to keep using some of the existing colors from Photoshop for skin tones, but for everything else I used Superman’s hues.

So, here they are:

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So, I like how these look.  I also think it’s appropriate to use coloring swatches from 1939 for a series called The Retros.

This does add a lot of time onto the comic, I think the pages took an hour or so each.  But now that I see it in color, I don’t think I can go back to black and white.  When I do print collections for the strip, I’ll probably still print in black and white unless I can afford to do color or raise money through Kickstarter or something.

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Old Friends

In 1982, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel attempted to record a new studio album.  They had done reunion concerts here and there but this would have been the first new album since they broke up in 1970.  The recording sessions did not go well and the project was never completed as intended.  The story goes that Simon erased Garfunkel’s contributions and released the album as a solo album titled ‘Hearts and Bones’.

Collaborations are difficult.  When there are two creative people working on something they are both passionate about, they tend to have ideas as to how things should go.  I don’t team up with others often, but I’ve always felt that I’ve done my strongest work with my friend Brian Bastian.  We’ve known each other for over 20 years and have done dozens of comics together.  We did about…20 issues of Uptown Girl, a few other one-shots, 12 issues of Tommy Chicago and he wrote the first Uptown Girl graphic novel.

We were both excited to work on The Retros together.  This was going to be a fun comic but for various reasons, Brian left the project.  We’re still great friends, but I think Brian just…wasn’t feeling it.  And that’s cool.  The Retros will still continue and I am still very excited to launch it this November.

The problem is what happens with what we’ve already created.  We had the “legal talk” which is a necessary but unpleasant conversation.  If The Retros ever got picked by Cartoon Network or whatever (yes, I’m dreaming here) Brian and I need to make sure that there will not be any hard feelings or legal action.  But Brian and I were friends first, before we ever did comics together, and will be after I turn 80 and I’ve given up on all this.  Neither of us wants to turn into Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

Working with Brian was…well, it was a lot of fun.  Brian brings something to a project that I never would’ve thought of or would’ve done.  We worked in a style that is commonly referred to ‘The Marvel Method’.  For example, Brian would give me an outline that would go something like this:

Red is on a field trip at an art museum and a big angry guy starts smashing up the place.  Red ducks away from the group and changes into Fly-Girl  and fights him.

And so on.

I would draw the sequence and lay out the word balloons.  After a few dozen pages he would come over and he’d write the dialogue.  It was fun seeing what Brian would come with and seeing what he’d react to.  In another scene he wrote that Lucky was spying on some smugglers at a warehouse.  Here’s what I drew:

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Now, if I was writing the dialogue, it’d be something kind of generic and cliched, but Brian really liked the third panel, especially the mustached guy and just ran with it.  Here’s what he wrote:

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I think this page, and the pages that follow are hilarious.  Definitely want to keep these pages as they are.  It’s a sequence like this that really bums me out about not working with Brian on this.  The big story arcs and the big picture I can handle but it’s the little stuff like this I can never do.

Another thing Brian does is bring a certain…well, edge to what I do.  The first comic we ever did together (that actually was released) was Uptown Girl #9, which introduced Sulky Girl, who has gone on to become a favorite supporting cast member.  Sulky Girl is the anti-Uptown Girl, Brian’s response to the overly optimistic and good-natured spirit of the comic.  Sulky Girl is not a character I could’ve, or would’ve created.  Brian doesn’t really push the envelope but he pushes mine.  He brought The Retros from what I saw as a pretty hard PG world to a PG-13 world.

For example:

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Two panels that are hilarious and perfect for Lucky’s character.  Sure, they’re not super racy or anything, but neither panel is a panel I would’ve written.  The dilemma now is keeping these panels as they are.  I don’t want to pull a Paul Simon and erase what Brian contributed, but on the other hand, with me writing everything, the comic will settle back into a PG world.  These panels would stick out, like the way an F-bomb would stick out in a Disney movie.

So, I am not sure what I will do.  My guess is I will rewrite these lines, and if I do, I want to make sure his original, funnier lines had a chance to be seen.

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Who You Are

“Bob, you’re a numbers guy, can you step into my office and run through some stats with me?”

My boss said these words to me last week and I hope he didn’t see me involuntary flinch because…well, he’s my boss and I kind of have to do what he asks.  But I did indeed flinch, as if I was stung or insulted.

“But I’m NOT a numbers guy,” I said to myself.  “I just have worked here for a long time and know how to run the reports and crunch some…well, numbers, I guess.”

Years ago the desire to tell my boss or anyone that I’m not a numbers guy, I’m a cartoonist, was really strong.  However, you don’t tell your boss that.

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Popeye created by Elzie Crisler Segar

I’ve been working a lot lately at my job so not seeing the walls of a cubicle is a little strange.  I’ve been putting in about 50 hours a week for about 6 weeks now.  I suppose it’s not that many hours compared to some and I am thankful every single day for the job and overtime but it is getting a little draining.  My whole world is my job, my desk and paperwork and the phone.  Anything else is a little odd.  I went to Target yesterday and it was so strange to walk around this huge building with these bright lights and seeing people who weren’t my family or co-workers.  Even being home is weird to me.

I stopped for a haircut last week and the hair stylist jumped into the normal chit-chat about..everything.  Lately I can’t seem to have a normal conversation about anything that doesn’t have to do with work.  Did I have kids?  I do have kids.  How was my day?  It was good and I didn’t tell her this but I hate talking about my day lately.  Where do I work?    I told her.  And then we talked about my job until my haircut was finished.  I left Great Clips or Cost Cutters or wherever I was and thought about that conversation.

I’ve been a cartoonist for a long time.  I’ve been making comics for a long time.  I used to tell people I was a cartoonist when I was asked what I did for a living.  I did this even when I worked at a call center or was a temp or doing one of the other jobs I’ve held over the years.  When I told people this, we’d have a conversation about comics and what I was working on and it was really fun and in a way, empowering telling people that I was doing what I wanted to do, even if it didn’t pay the bills.  After a while I stopped telling people this and I wonder when I stopped and why.  I think when I was younger I told people that because I honestly believed that it would become true someday.  I was optimistic and excited.  I was going to fake till I made it.

But when did I stop?  When did I let…everything else take over?  I suppose I felt like a fraud after a while.  Telling people I was a cartoonist when I really have had no real success at it.  Telling people I made comics when most of my week was running reports and going to meeting after meeting.  I’m wasn’t a cartoonist, I was a guy who drew pictures when I wasn’t at work and after the kids when to bed.  People would ask where they could see my comics and since few stores carry Uptown Girl books and they’re not on Amazon or online, it was kind of hard to point people towards my work.  It’s kind of like telling people that you have a girlfriend who lives in Canada and they’ll probably never meet her.

I think a lot about identity and about what defines someone and what makes someone who they are.  For some people, it’s what they do that defines them.  Some people dress in a certain way or express themselves with a ringtone or hundreds of other ways.  I think we all have a desire to be understood.  I wanted my boss and the hairstylist to know I was a cartoonist.

So I got to thinking why don’t I start doing that again?  Why don’t I tell people I’m a cartoonist?  It’s a lot more fun than telling people about my cubicle and my endless schedule of meetings.

I think when The Retros launches in November it’ll be so much easier to tell people that I do a comic strip and you can read it online.  It doesn’t get more accessible than that.  I am really looking forward to launching The Retros.  Creatively I feel I am hitting the ground running with the benefit and experience of spending over ten years working on Uptown Girl.  I am also hoping to use everything I’ve learned about promotion and the business side of comics to my advantage with this.  I am also hoping to feel more confident about identifying as a cartoonist because I can say things like “I’m a cartoonist!  See?  Here’s my website!  Here’s my comic!”

Anyway, too much soul searching for a Sunday morning, so here’s some of what I’ve been working on lately.  What you won’t see is any progress on Uptown Girl as I am still in the writing/layout stage.  Rest assured I am making great progress in terms of page count and story.  When I do sit down to work on it, the story is moving quickly and naturally.  I think I am about halfway done and hopefully start the inking in the fall.

Here’s some of the recent Retros work and a picture I drew for my daughter that may or may not turn into a bigger project.  This was kind of like a trial to give the materials and format a try.

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Good News for People who Love Bad News

So yesterday I was a guest on the podcast The Geek Report.

It was pretty fun.

A topic came up that I wasn’t expecting to talk about quit yet but I figured it was as good of a time to talk about as any.

The next Uptown Girl, ‘The Lazarus Heart’, will be the last Uptown Girl book.

I’m sorry.

This was not an easy decision in some ways.  It was something I decided over two years ago, however.  I’ve mad ethe decision for a few reasons…some creative, some business, some personal.

So, let’s talk about this.

When I was working on 2013’s book, ‘The Long Forgotten Fairytale’, I saw a way to tie in the previous Uptown Girl books as well as the next few.  I never meant for the graphic novels to be parts of a larger story, but once I saw a way to connect them, a story started to open up before me.  Once that story was in my head, it was impossible to ignore.  Besides, it sounded like a lot of fun to do.  The way that ‘The Lazarus Heart’ will end, it is not only a perfect end to the book, but also a very appropriate way to end the series.    If I was going to end the series, this was the perfect time to do it.

So why end it at all?  Why not continue it?

This is where is gets personal.  Uptown Girl has always been a very personal work.  I started the series when I was working part time at a comic book store.  I rented a room in my friend’s basement and I was single.  Fast forward 13 years, I own a townhouse in the suburbs, I am married with two kids.  My life is about as different as it could get.  My life is stable and hopefully the big changes are over with.

Much of what I went through found its way into Uptown Girl.  When I turned 30, so did Uptown Girl.  She went through a lot of the frustrations and self doubt about life that I did.  Writing that issue was very therapeutic.  When I fell in love with the girl I married, Ruby fell in love with her high school crush.  Thankfully my relationship turned out differently than hers.  When my daughter was born, so was Rose to Jack and Diane.
To be honest, these days I am having a hard time relating to Uptown Girl and her friends.  They have different lives than I do now.  They have a life I lived 15 years ago.  When I created them I put so much of me into them.  They, in a way, represent who I was a long time ago.

I can’t imagine I will love a character more than I love Uptown Girl.

It’s time to walk away while her life life is still super fun.  While I still love them.  Leave a party when it’s roaring.  I want to give Uptown Girl’s fan a final story they…and she deserves.  Something with heart, humor and action.

This is a decision of heart and creativity so I am reluctant to talk about the business side of the decision.  I’ve worked on Uptown Girl for over a decade.  Almost four THOUSAND pages of comics.  It’s all I do, creatively.  It’s a comic that needs all of my free time and I willingly and happily give it to her.  I’m at the point where I can either do Uptown Girl or…other projects, like other comics or a children’s book.  I always thought by doing graphic novels I’d have more time to develop other projects.  Short of taking time away from my family I don’t have the time I thought I’d have.

A cartoonist dreams, heck, we all dream of making a living doing what we love.  Years ago I dreamed of making a living off of Uptown Girl.  Over time I’ve talked to publishers and Hollywood agents and even animation studios.  Uptown Girl doesn’t fit anywhere, according to them.  It’s too all ages to be marketable, a series can’t be successful if the lead character is female, the comic doesn’t appeal to boys…obviously I disagree with all of these thoughts.  Undeterred I plowed ahead for 13 years hoping to find a wider audience, to beat the odds.  But I’ve been unsuccessful.  Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve tried.  I’ve tried so hard.  I did everything I could think of.  Emailed anyone I thought could help.  I’m sorry.  I don’t know what else I can do.  I’m sorry if I let you down.  I think Uptown Girl could be wildly successful given a chance, but perhaps the comic simply isn’t good enough.  Maybe I’m not.  I am not looking for reassurance, I understand and recognize my limitations and abilities.

I want to take a stab at supporting myself and family with what I am passionate about.  It’s time to try other projects.  This is where The Retros comes in.  Did The Retros have an influence in this decision?

No.

I decided to start The Retros because I needed something to do once Uptown Girl was over.  It’s like deciding on a hobby for when you retire.  I needed something to do look forward to.

The last Uptown Girl book will be out in the spring of 2017.

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One Hundred Pages Later

I hit a weird little milestone last week that was totally on accident.

My two main projects, Uptown Girl-The Lazarus Heart and The Retros both hit 100 pages last week.

I was very happy to hit 100 pages in The Lazarus Heart.  After I finished drawing and inking the 10 page or so prologue, I decided to write and pencil the rest of the book before I started inking it.  The penciling at first was pretty tight but now it’s gotten much looser, almost to the point where the pages are just layouts.  I figured the book would be about 300 pages and if it turns out to be that long, then I am about a third done.  I’d like to be at 200 pages by the end of July and done with writing and layouts by October.  I think I am track.

The writing is going well.  Some stuff has happened and is going to open up some fun moments like Rocketman’s new roommate.  The roommate thing wasn’t really planned and just kind of happened.  I needed him to start hanging out with someone to help move the plot along but by having this person move in with Rocketman it solved another problem.  I love it when stuff like that happens.

For the most part, the book is going well.  My only snag so far is the bad guy.  I’m having a hard time with the bad guy’s motivation and logistics and reasoning.  I am hoping it becomes clearer as the story goes.  There will also likely be some additional rewrites and editing.

I thought about scanning in a recent page but the pencils are so light as it is that it wouldn’t be a very interesting picture.  I also thought about showing page 100 of the Retros but the page doesn’t make much sense out of context and is sort of spoiler-y, so here’s another page.

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This is Alie, our fearless leader in an epic fight with Volcanix, the main bad guy.

It’s pretty exciting to be this far ahead on the Retros.  I plan on updating Monday through Friday for the first year and then seeing how I’m doing after that.  I will be collecting the comic into book collections, but the problem is when do I do it.  I look at the Retros as a continuing series with story arcs numbering hundreds of pages.  I think the first story will be around 350 pages.  If I update five times a week, that’s 20 pages a month.  It will take almost a year a half until the story is completed.  The Retros launches in November and if I wait that long, the first collection won’t be out until spring 2017.  I don’t think I want to wait that long to publish it.  At the rate I’m going, I’ll probably be done with the 350 pages next summer.  The first printed book could be out in the fall of 2016.  If I do that, then the ending is out before the website catches up.

But that might not be a problem.  I don’t necessarily think the book audience will be the same audience as those who reads the Retros online.

I haven’t decided yet, but I think I will be publishing the books as they are finished and letting the website post as scheduled.  Any thoughts would be welcome, this is a new world for me.

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Cartoon Heroes

Okay, last week I said there would be a pretty big announcement about something.  And it’s true!

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A few months ago, I let the cat out of the bag about a new comic called The Retros.  Originally scheduled to launch in January 2016 with my friend Brian Bastian writing the series.  A couple changes since then, and it will now be a solo act by myself starting this November.  I’ve been really excited about the comic and can’t wait for people to read it.  It’s a little different than what I’ve been doing with Uptown Girl.  It’s looser, the character designs are a little more cartooney and the stories will be less grounded in reality.  I started a Twitter account in January where I’ve been posting daily pictures of pages in progress, character designs and stuff like that.  When I am working on something I am excited about, it’s hard for me to stop talking about it…especially when I can’t talk about something.

Anyway, the news is that in addition to the Retros launching as a webcomic, it will also be an animated webseries!

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The webseries will exist alongside the comic and will be short 3-5 minute episodes that will be posted on a regular schedule.  The schedule as well as when the series will debut is still being worked out.

The webseries will be animated by Brian Quarfoth, one of the animators who worked on the animation that was part of the Uptown Girl movie a few years ago.  Brian Q and I, along with Brian Bastian and another friend, Jerry did our best to make an animated Uptown Girl series a few years ago as well but didn’t really go anywhere, and for that, I take the blame.

But that is all behind us.  There was never any bad blood, just four guys who wanted to make a cartoon but had no idea what we were doing.  Since then, Brian Q has done a lot of animating and I’ve done a lot of cartooning and…well, calming down.

The webseries is is still very much in the early days.  I’ve seen a lot of test footage and I can’t tell you how excited I am about this.  It looks amazing.  Now that the series has been announced, Brian Q and I will be posting screenshots and other fun stuff on the blog as well as the new Retros Facebook page.  Go Like it or Follow it or whatever.  I can wait.

This is all very exciting to Brian and I.  I really feel we’re building something really amazing and that we’re doing this the right way.  I am well over 100 pages of comics for the Retros.  I plan on updating daily, Monday through Friday, for the first year.  After that, we’ll see, it might go to three times a week.

Here’s more screen shots and character designs.  I do want to point out that although The Retros were created by me, Fly-Girl was co-created by Brian Bastian.  Thanks for reading and stay tuned.  I was going to say ‘stay tooned’ but…well, I didn’t.

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At War with Reality

Yesterday was Free Comic Book Day.  Did you go?  You did?  Good!

Brian Bastian, his brother Dan Voltz and I were guests at Jimmy Jams yesterday.  It  was a lot of fun.  I’ve never been to Winona before and I really had a nice time.  I did a lot of drawings and met some really nice people.

It’s been a while since my last signing and I learned a little about my art style since then.  Well, maybe not learn anything, but rather embrace my strengths and stop drawing in a style I am not comfortable with.  At the last event, kids would ask for drawings of Optimus Prime, or Disney Princesses or Iron Man and I would do my best to draw a somewhat realistic version of them.  The drawings didn’t look good.  I decided that I am a cartoonist and realism doesn’t work for me (on a lot of levels).  I struggle with drawing realistically.  I always have.  I’m drawn (ha ha) to more stylistic cartoonists.  So, I decided I’d stick to what I do best and draw a lot simpler and play to my strengths a bit.  Doing that was the right choice, the drawings were better and I had a lot more fun.

Here’s some of what I did:

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It was a fun day and it went by too quickly.

Coming up in two weeks, MSP Comic Con.

Coming up in one week, big news so stay tooned tuned.

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