January 3, 2022
My housemate Andrea is a prolific painter and printmaker, and we frequently discuss our creative process. Last week they said I should write a blog entry about how I make my comics. Andrea also occasionally tells me firmly to take a break already you workaholic, so I guess keep that in mind while you read.
You may know that this comic appears in monthly installments through Activator magazine, a printed music publication based in Springfield, Illinois. Since I first conceived of Freaks’ Progress, way back in the early nineties (I’m not kidding), I have dreamed of publishing it serially, like Charles Dickens initially did with his novels. This isn’t because I hold Dickens in any high esteem. I mean he’s okay. But like Dickens’ work, my comic is also a meandering, character-based morality tale of sorts, with no particular hurry about the plot. I think in that way it is aesthetically appropriate to mirror Dickens’ publication method. When Joseph Copley from Activator contacted me out of the blue to start publishing in the magazine, I could hardly believe it. This was my dream coming to call on me.
I cannot overstate how much I love that Freaks’ Progress is serialized in a free publication distributed in a city hundreds of miles from where I live. I love not knowing who sees my work. The web version is, of course, distributed everywhere; but print is different. At this moment in time, it feels subversive. That suits me very well.
Since this comic has been in development for decades, I do not lack for ideas. The problem is to organize them, and to discard any bad ideas that may have seemed great when I was in my twenties. Sometimes, however, I also recognize the value of good ideas I had in my twenties, and the challenge is to update them for our current world and my own current point of view.
I am always getting new ideas, writing fragments of conversation, and, heaven help us, creating whole new characters that take their place in the future chapter queue. I organize all this in a series of text documents and folders on my laptop. I record ideas I may get throughout the day by sending emails to myself, and later I compile them in these text documents. I’m sure there is some app or software that claims to make this process easier, but I am not interested in it at this time. This system works for me.
A monthly publication schedule also serves very well as a monthly deadline. I cannot overstate how much I appreciate this deadline. It’s easy to lose track of plot arcs in a long work like Freaks’ Progress, and unless one has regular deadlines, it’s very easy to never get started at all. My current system is to write an entire chapter, submit it to feedback partners for review, and make any revisions. I then draw two pages a month, which I publish in print through Activator, and online at this site. I am increasing my output to four pages monthly in January 2022, so I can work through an average of one chapter every year.
Though I write the chapter first, I always edit as I draw, because my writing tends to be too wordy to work in a comic. As you draw, you realize how much you can communicate with images. Occasionally I realize a whole plot point isn’t working, and I revise it on the spot. In the most recent pages, an entire conversation got completely replaced. The original version had the characters being jerks for no good reason. The new conversation deepened relationships and opened new narrative paths.
I complete the pages serially, and don’t edit the story as a whole; unless you count that time I redid the entire second chapter, which is happening right now. I took a break from publishing what was originally just a webcomic in 2017. When Joseph got hold of me in 2020, I republished Chapter One, which I thought was solid. I used that time to rewrite Chapter 2, since the original version seemed underdeveloped to me. The pages I am publishing now come from that script.
My collage approach started out as a shortcut, but now it’s a style choice. I am neither interested in, nor very good at, drawing backgrounds; but I like to create a specific sense of place. So I compile drawings with some images I find online, though mostly with photographs I take myself. I realize this style refers to punk zines from the 70 - 90s. That’s the aesthetic that informed my youth, so I guess I absorbed it. Strangely, I didn’t much like this aesthetic when I was in high school. I thought it looked messy. Now I love the messy.
When I first started publishing Freaks’ Progress, I drew it by hand. I would ink it with ballpoint pen, clean up the pencil with a kneaded eraser (I never got the hang of non photo blue), scan the drawings, clean them up further in Photoshop, and then collage them with photographs. If you think that sounds like entirely too much work, you’re right. I got a tablet when I started Chapter Two, and after a short learning curve I can’t imagine ever drawing comics on paper again. Well okay, maybe some character sketches or paintings or whatever. But there’s no way I’m drawing my answer to David Copperfield in pencil and going through all that nonsense to get it to print. Forget it.
I started including music almost accidentally. The character Rey is from Argentina, and because my partner is an old school punk rocker, I was curious whether there was a punk scene in Argentina during the Dirty War. Dear reader, there was. Can you imagine? I found Represión online, and I ran it by a friend, who had spent a couple years in Buenos Aires, for translation. I wanted to make sure I knew what it said, and at that point I couldn’t find the lyrics online. My friend really liked it. So that became the first song in the comic.
The pirate radio station plot line was inspired by the experience of another friend who worked with a station in Mexico. I realized that the webcomic could easily include music, so I started to make it a regular feature of the plot. I draw from a very deep well of talented musician friends, all of whom appreciate being mentioned in a music publication and linked online. Here’s where I tell you to buy their music. Do it!
The fonts are important. I chose them years ago, and I think they complement my drawing style perfectly. I use Hrawolam by Bumbayo Font Fabrik for conversation text. Sound effects and song lyrics tend to be Big Bottom Cartoon by Karen B. Jones. Titling varies between Birmingham by Paul Lloyd and Du Bellay by Daniel Midgley. Occasionally I include other fonts, but these are my longtime standbys. I get them from DaFont, if you’re interested.
Earlier I mentioned feedback partners. Lately I am thinking of hiring sensitivity readers for deep reads of future chapters. As I continue writing about characters with backgrounds completely different from my own, I think it’s worth my time to get some extensive critical commentary. It doesn’t matter that the characters inhabit a fantastical world. That’s no excuse to be sloppy.
As you see, I take this very seriously. You may justifiably ask how I can dedicate so much time to a comic that is not attached to a major distributor, and which is obviously not making me a living. That is a whole other blog entry. Maybe next time I can talk about the economics of being an artist, or how to survive between the cracks of the world with a combination of privilege, luck, and fairy dust. I apologize if that sounds flippant, because I mean it to be taken very soberly. What I do is not easy, and it’s rarely ever dependable for more than a few months at a time. I know it’s not possible for many people to live like this. A large part of how I make it work is because of my access to networks and resources.
I’m not living large, but I keep it together. That’s an incredibly big deal these days and I know it.
December 8, 2021
It’s finals week at the university where I teach, and like always, I have a touch of Empty Nest Syndrome. Even though I’m a fairly hands off instructor, I still develop connections to my students. I like watching their progress. Their work allows me a small, temporary window to see the world through a younger person’s eyes.
I’m solidly middle aged. I don’t mind it. This point in life, for me, is a perfect blend of energy and focus. I’m not sure how long that’s going to last, so I’m running on all cylinders for now. That might sound intense. Happily, the years have taught me how to fiercely budget my time, including time for breaks. I didn’t know if I would ever get to this point.
The story of this comic includes people of not only many backgrounds, but a variety of ages. I know there is no way I understand what it’s like to be any kind of twelve year-old right now. I doubt it’s a good use of my time to pretend that I do. Of course I pay attention, listen to young people, do research. But I know I’ll never speak with the authority of a lived experience. I accept that, and I work with it in mind.
I know what it was like for me to be a twelve year-old, and I draw on that memory. Certainly the tools and accessories of youth were a lot different then. I frequently thank heaven that social media didn’t exist when I was young; I don't think I would have fared well. It makes me wonder how well young people today are faring themselves. I try to remember that tension when I write younger characters.
For myself, I wonder what it might be like to enter old age as the world potentially slips into authoritarianism, and system collapse. That could be my later years, but I’ve had many years already that weren’t so bad. I was allowed to screw up and rebound many times. What would it be like to see collapse as your long future? Is that a window I want to look through?
I don’t want that for any of us. Certainly young people deserve better. Writing younger characters helps me think more deeply about what a better world might look like.
November 19, 2021
This is the weirdest time to be writing a blog. You could say that about pretty much any time in, like, the last five years. Nothing I have to say seems very relevant right now, but here I am.
What’s even weirder is that I am currently at a lovely weekend art retreat in Racine, Wisconsin. That’s about 10 miles north of Kenosha, where Kyle Rittenhouse was just found not guilty of all charges. For the record, I am a prison abolitionist; or at least I am attempting to get my head around what that means in daily practice. Still though. This verdict is clearly a dangerous precedent to far right vigilantes everywhere. Hopefully you don’t need me to tell you that.
At the retreat, all of us Art Ladies either ate lunch in stunned silence or ranted with tears in our eyes. There was fear and anger and a feeling of helplessness. Occasionally we admitted that the chili was good though, and so was the cornbread. We all felt how very thin is the membrane between our carefully constructed comfort, and the world perpetually in flames all around us.
I think any artist, particularly in the States, sometimes struggles with “justifying” what they do. We’re told to see it as frivolous, as luxury. Honestly I’m feeling that way right now.
I was one of the people who thrived during Lockdown. For eight months I stayed with my partner and worked from home. I ate incredibly well because he is a very good cook. We tried to grow tomatoes and laughed at how miserably we failed. We rode bikes a lot. I picked up some good new habits, and lost some bad ones. I made a hell of a lot of art. A few of my artist friends and I sheepishly admitted to each other that Lockdown felt like a year long residency, and we didn’t want to say that out loud because so many people were truly suffering, were dying. I had never before felt quite so personally how many different realities there are in this country.
This past year, my art practice has finally started gaining real momentum. I’m working on interesting client projects. I got my first grant. The art co-operative I co-founded was selected to participate in a professional development and financial support program. A few days ago I was accepted to a two month residency in Portugal, where next summer I will build an animatronic robot installation in the countryside. It’s the stuff of dreams. What the hell.
How is art useful? How is it helping us get free? Let’s leave aside the whole discussion of what “useful’ means right now, and whether that’s an important criteria. There’s the consciousness raising art, and the art that calms our fragile souls as we withstand shock after shock. There’s also art that shows us what could be, what world we could make if we explored a different way of doing things. I think I belong to this group. At least that’s where I’m trying to be.
I keep hearing reassurances that of course art is useful, of course it is vitally important to life. Sometimes it’s difficult to accept. A comic will never save the world, but I think it could fit on that path somewhere.