Kleefeld On Webcomics #71: Original Art

By Sean Kleefeld

One of the great things about webcomics, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned at least once or twice before is the fact that they’re digital. You can keep up with some really great stories and strips while you’re travelling, or when you’ve got a few extra moments in the library, or whatever. There’s no concern about whether or not your local shop will carry the issue, or if it might be sold out. Since webcomics are digital, they can be sent anywhere in the world any time you like, as often as you like. They take advantage of some of the key facets of the internet to full effect.

So it might sound curious to talk about the original art used in creating webcomics. If they’re digital, wouldn’t they be created digitally? Using Photoshop and a Wacom pen tablet or something? We’re talking about creators who have eschewed conventional methods of comics delivery in favor of something different; wouldn’t they be more apt to also use different tools to create their work?

While there certainly are creators who worked exclusively digitally, many also craft their comics in a decidedly more traditional manner, using good old pen and ink on a sheet of paper or board.

There are different reasons a creator might choose to work this way. I’ve heard of some who prefer the hand-crafted nature of their work, and enjoy the slight inconsistencies that inevitably crop up when they’re not relying on a computer to form perfectly straight lines or precisely consistent lettering. Others only do it in order to provide an additional income stream. I heard Thom Zahler note that he used to draw Love and Capes digitally, but switched pen and paper so that he could sell his originals.

There are a couple of reasons why getting a hold of a piece of original comic art is cool. In the first place, you’re helping the creator out. Financially, of course, but also from a storage perspective. Webcomic original art isn’t in terribly high demand, so creators end up keeping many of their pages simply because nobody’s bought them. (As they tend to not have more popular characters like Spider-Man and Batman on them.) I asked Frank Page about a piece not long ago, and he had to sort through his files to find the one I wanted. Shortly afterwards, he posted this picture of five years of Bob the Squirrel art...

(It might be worth pointing out, too, that Page has been drawing Bob the Squirrel for TEN years now. So he’s got roughly twice that many pages!)

Dorothy Gambrell opted to get rid of many of her pieces in a “moving sale and panic” promotion back in May. Just to clear things out, she was selling original pages of Cat and Girl for half her normal price. I’m sure she made a little extra money from the deal, but the main purpose was to just get the pages out of her hair.

Now what you may notice in the Cat and Girl piece posted here is that it doesn’t look quite right. It’s very light, compared to what she posts on here site. That’s because Gambrell evidently fills in all her blacks digitally after the work’s been scanned. She draws on regular typing paper, and I suspect she discovered early on that large amounts of black ink on the page would crumple and curl the the paper, making it difficult to scan flat. By completing that step digitally, she doesn’t have to worry about paper itself causing problems.

And that is another reason why obtaining original comic art is a great idea. You can study how the creator builds the comic, and what types of thoughts and processes they go through while they’re working. This is supremely evident in one of the two pieces of art that I got from Page...

Page takes a very traditional approach to drawing his strip. He sketches the entire thing out using a blue pencil first. (The specific shade of blue was one that was invisible to old reproduction technologies, which is why many comic artists used to use it. It’s called “non-repro blue” and continues to be used because it also happens to be very easy to remove digitally after a page is scanned.) You can see he tries a couple of different things with regard to specific positioning of the shield, as he worked out what how each specific panel should be composed. You can also see a bit of personal frustration at the top of the strip, as he complains -- evidently, to himself -- about the heat.

But when he goes back to ink the work, he makes final selections of how the final piece should look to the reader. He eliminates Bob’s pupils, for example, and decides the shield isn’t necessary in the second panel after all. He changes the emphasis in the dialogue in the last panel as well.

All of this points to an artist who is most decidedly not just throwing down lines on the page on a whim. Each line and detail is carefully considered, weighed against what serves the art and/or the story best. That’s not necessarily an approach that every artist takes, but it’s how Page tackles his work and something that might not be easily apparent just reading his finished strips. Despite the whimsical nature of the strip, and the loose-looking inking style, it’s actually a quite calculated piece. Look closely and you can even see where Page pencilled in the full copyright information before inking it!

Studying the original art provides a deeper appreciation of what goes into the comic, as well as a better understanding of the creator. And, as I alluded to earlier, is a nice way to provide some additional financial support to an independent creator. Plus, on top of all that, you can claim bragging rights on owning original art! There’s not much of a down-side here!

Related Posts:

Kleefeld On Webcomics #70: Thoughts From Greg Rucka

Kleefeld On Comics #68: "Of Eisners and Harveys"

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