FiF Postscripts by John Barber

One more little conversation with a webcomics creator, this time Justine Shaw of Nowhere Girl. When Nowhere Girl first appeared, as a fully-formed, smartly written, and beautifully drawn 40-page comic, it obviously created a sensation.

Justine was the first—and so far only—comics creator to be nominated for an Eisner award without ever having any work in print. And she’s great to talk to, as you’ll see here:

Hi Justine. When and why did you start putting comics on the web?

My first webcomic was Nowhere Girl issue 1, which was October of 2001. The Web, for good or ill, lets anyone, including yours truly, put their stuff out there, no editor (more than likely), no compromises in the way you want to do what you do.

It this always a good thing? I don’t mean in the sense of not-letting-developing-artists-do-their-thing, but in the sense that maybe an editor could really help some comics. Many comics. I mean, in the book world, you’re never going to see some masterpiece of literature come out without someone editing it. You wouldn’t have The Wasteland without Ezra Pound.

Well, I singled out the position of “editor” unfairly–what I think I’m getting at is the freedom to do work that will just go out there and not come back to you with big red marks all over it saying, “change this, we can’t have this, the shareholders will spontaneously combust,” etc. I’ve heard enough people remark about it to think it’s a benefit of self-publishing, whether on the web or in print.

However–boy howdy, I personally could sure have used an editor’s advice!

But this happens rarely in non-mainstream comics (I think Chris Starros acts like an Editor editor, trying to get the best out of the creators, and I don’t know what happens at Alternative Press or Oni or Fantagraphics) and, I think, never on the web.

You can show your comic to someone, sure, but I really wish I had someone who cared about the comic as much as I do, and who’s qualified, be standing between me and my ftp account sometimes.

I hear ya–I have to fight the urge to redraw certain pages, delete others, re-insert others that were deleted before publishing, etc.

But again, I don’t think there should be a barrier to people putting comics on the web, I’m just saying that at a certain point, an editor would be very useful.

Yeah, I definitely hear ya. Like I said, I think I singled that profession out unfairly as emblematic of what I’ve heard people complain about who’ve had to deal with such things. I don’t know how better to put it…maybe, being on the web you have less concern about pleasing anyone but yourself?

Of course, very few people I think actually make a living off of doing web-comics. And those that are, I believe (though I may be wrong) that they started on the web, but have moved to both web and print for income. Those people have a fundamental thing that I myself lack and find myself admiring in them: a functioning brain.

Does working and the web affect the tools you use?

It limits the amount of tools I wanna use. I treated my last color comic, which was Nowhere Girl issue two, almost like it was friggin’ animation when I was drawing it. I had all kinds of layers of tracing paper and backgrounds that were to be re-used from panel to panel. So I’d assemble a lot of the panels, sometimes most of a page, inside Photoshop itself. So, if I look at my original “artwork”, I have pages that are mostly blank with little notes scribbled on them that say “CGI here”, then I have sheets and sheets and sheets of tracing paper in elaborate naming conventions which make up the content for those areas.

I don’t ink, not because I’ve anything against it, just for reasons of time expense. I pencil in blue non-repro and then get my final pencils as tight as I can over the top of that. So there’s no inking and little erasing for me. I then scan the whole shebang into Photoshop, do some clean-up, and start coloring the backgrounds, coloring the people for the foregrounds, then assembling the panels.

I went way overboard with this in my last comic. I love Photoshop to death, but you can, if you spend enough time, literally render something so it looks like a photograph. I’ve never gotten close to that bad, but dang I just don’t know when to quit with the rendering sometimes.

Knowing it’s all going to show up on someone’s nice big bright full-color monitor somewhere makes me think it has to be in color, because that’s what people would expect. But, I dunno. Next time I want to be more abstract. I’ve been looking at the colors for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic. They’re gorgeous, just gorgeous. I wanna get closer to that, if I may be so bold as to say.

You know, I loved the colors themselves in League, like the color choices I mean, but I thought the slick Photoshop style of the finishing jarred with…well, everything else about the comic. I mean, O’Neill took a scratchy, vaguely 19th century styling to his art, Oakley was lettering the thing by hand, you had all those pseudo-19th century captions, all the old ads, and then slick digital coloring [by Ben Dimagmaliw] that looked like any other Wildstorm book. Or am I missing something?

Hmm… I see what you mean, but I guess I am not reading enough Wildstorm stuff right now (not that I don’t think they’re fantastically talented folks) — is League being done in a sort of “house style”? I thought it looked rather unique, but then I only see the covers of most comics. And lots of them have a somewhat Japanese anime feel to the coloring if not the drawing too. You know, all hard lines, slick 2 or 3 levels of color. I like the soft airbrushing of League because, though this may be more common than I thought, it looks very deliberately less labored, like they knew exactly what to put where — it’s less additional rendering on top of the drawings and more just “atmosphere” and mood to me.

Maybe I don’t read enough comics, but the airbrushed quality, all soft edges, is really nice to my eye. I love the harsh lines that make things appear a bit more like an animated cell, I overused that technique to death in NG #2, but LoEG’s colors just breath, they’re so much less labored, it’s like the person(s) doing them just knew exactly what colors to put where. It’s so nice.

Well, to be fair I was probably wrong, and it doesn’t really look like a lot of Wildstorm stuff, but I just had the impression that it had that digital finish to it because that’s what comics have…

It’s a weird mix to me: it certainly isn’t the 4-color comics of pre-1990, nor is it the super-rendered, anime-like coloring of modern super-hero comics. It looks more “naturalistic” to me, more like painting as weird as that may sound. And it doesn’t seem overly labored, it looks like it just comes out right the first time.

Well, you’ve convinced me to take another look, and with some time separating my initial thoughts and expectations, I think I agree with you. For the record.

But back to your own coloring—I thought your colors in Nowhere Girl #2 were beautiful—I actually just read through both books again, and—and I mean this in a good way—I remembered Nowhere Girl #1 as being really beautifully drawn with elaborate coloring, which it was, but Nowhere Girl #2 was a lot better.

Thanks! I think my drawing was a lot stronger by part 2. However I really, really need to simplify my coloring. Just because I can do something with the tools at hand doesn’t mean I have to or even should. Photoshop is so powerful and I use only maybe a small percentage of what it can really do, and I still think I’m being too literal-minded. It’s not a photograph, even though I have the tools at my fingertips to treat and render it as such. Unless it’s a comic made using photographs, there’s a level of abstraction in all cartooning, and Photoshop offers the possibility of pushing that abstraction to the verge of the photo-realistic (not that my stuff is photo-realistic obviously). I find abstraction really difficult though, when I’m drawing I’m always trying to capture what the character “really” looks like, make them look more “real”. Photoshop just feeds that folly.

Still, I understand what you mean about Photoshop. Different art calls for different methods, and no one way is right for everyone or everything. I’m curious to see what you do next.

I really need to reign myself in on my next book. I drew almost all of Nowhere Girl part two in about three weeks, but the coloring took an additional five months! That’s obviously not a good way to work.

Do you mean more abstract in the sense of not naturalistic coloring or like not necessarily following the lines?

Less laborious rendering–taking a step back from the drawing when the basic, flat colors are in place, and seeing how much rendering is really needed. I tend to have all these light sources and I fixate on rendering how each light source reflects on all the different materials in a scene (skin, fabrics, tree bark, metal, etc), and then I start plotting the shadows that fall from these light sources…. this all can create a lot of atmosphere, but it is a level of detail I think might make certain scenes “punch” more if I used it more sparingly.

One of my friends has said her major beef with my artwork has always been that I treat every part of the picture as equally important to all others, so, the eye doesn’t know just where to go. Since this is sequential art we’re talking about, moving the reader’s eye to the right place at the right time, to read the right succession of panels, to heighten the emotion or tension of one scene while downplaying another…all these things are, I think, far more important than how “realistic” my shitty cartoon tree looks or whether it has exactly the same branches in the next panel I show it. I tend to fixate on the small things so much I lose site of the “big picture” and wind up with a jumbled mess.

It’s easier for people to notice they’re noticing realistically rendered stuff, so I think that stuff gets lauded a lot, while stuff that’s more visceral (ironically) takes more effort to notice that you’re noticing.

And abstraction is hard, at least for me. I can go outside and look at a tree and I can render it perfectly, charcoal, Photoshop, whatever. But I do it by brute force, throwing every trick I have at it; ask me to capture that tree in three brush strokes, and I’m lost.

If you’ve seen some of Kris Dresen’s more rendered stuff — you can see how many friggin’ little lines and marks she uses, sometimes in a single black and white panel. But: she makes it work: my eye knows where to go, she knows when to just stop because the piece is done. I myself would just keep drawing until the entire white page was now black.

That’s a good point, I see what you’re saying. That’s tricky with all aspects of comics, but yeah, coloring has such a huge effect.

Yeah–my stuff in b&w is totally flat and much more cartoony. Not that I’m dissing that.

How much of this stuff does the reader have to notice for it to matter?

I mean, I think a lot of this happens subconsciously, or whatever. Like, unless you were really analyzing a page, which a casual reader probably wouldn’t be, you’re not going to be saying, hmm, my eye doesn’t know where to go. With relation to the coloring. (Bad layout or text placement will cause that).

Yeah–maybe it was some of my placement of lettering that she was really noticing. I intend to experiment with lettering on the next comic I do, I saw Alison Bechdel’s slide show of her work at APE. Some of the slides were the stages from sketch to finished art that she has. Her method of lettering was really cool to me: she lays out the whole page, all the panels, and letters it in the computer, then prints that out and draws around the lettering.

I have done the exact opposite, which is I draw and color the whole thing, *then* letter over the top of the art. But sometimes I just can’t sacrifice something I’ve spent so much time rendering, so I have made poor balloon placement decisions. I think getting too “precious” with my own art is a real detriment. The same friend who said that comment about my over-rendering once told me you have to be willing to sacrifice even your best work if it is what suits the work overall. I cut some pages from Nowhere Girl #1 to tighten up the pacing of the first half of the story before I put it online, and I really liked some of the drawing in those pages, but it was the right call. If anything I should have trimmed

One of my favorite colorists is David Hornung, who used to do stuff in Rubber Blanket. He colored Sandman Mystery Theater, mostly over Guy Davis art. It was all flat colors, all grays and browns, until The Sandman showed up–he had this gun that fired green gas, so as Sandman was about to arrive, Hornung would introduce little bits of green into he scenes, and when he’s there, everything was enshrouded in this bright green mist.

There was this one story where they went to a library, and as they’re in there all the books are colored in flat fields of color–this stack is all brick red, this is brown, this is gray. It all recedes. Later they go to this guy’s house, and he has a million books in his house, so Hornung colors them all individually–I mean, still in brick red, brown, grey, but individual books, not fields of color.

The effect was that, there’s the same number of books in each scene, but because there are supposed to be a million books in a library the library looks calm, but because it’s unusual to find a library’s worth of books in an apartment, that becomes really active and subtly jarring.

Now, I noticed this because I was pouring over these comics trying to learn what Hornung was doing, and I’d be surprised if more than ten people ever saw this. But I’m pretty sure everybody who read it was affected by it.

Ah, see now I looove stuff like that. Restraint of color palette or whatever visual element you could think of, and when they do use it, it adds such a punch, that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

We’ll be back next time with the conclusion to this interview!

John Barber is a contributing columnist for Comixpedia.

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Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.