Tuesday, March 16, 2010

On Evolution in Comics

(I'm speaking strictly from the development of a particular comic from its creation to its final incarnation in this piece, but that does touch on the internal groth of the artist as well.)

I have often noticed this particular quirk among comics that one becomes accustomed to reading, be they newspaper strips or comic books, that the art and the writing tend to improve with each 'episode'.  This improvement is such a gradual one that the reader rarely notices this.  All he knows is that the comic is good and stays that way. He often can sense when any particular episode is mailed in, but for the most part, if the strip is successful, it follows this pattern.

The part where this gets interesting is when the reader goes back and re-reads the first incarnation of the strip.

That is when the reader notices something he never saw before.  The beginning was crude and rashly put together.  It looks not a thing like the present incarnation.  Often, the reader gets confused at this point and thinks that there was a swap in the artist's chair at some point.  This switch is imaginary.  What the reader just stumbled upon was the evolution.  This comes in many forms.  The artist, having drawn the same thing repeatedly, gets better at it with each attempt.  The artist has some sort of epiphany mid-way through the process and improves his technique.  The artist just plain gets better. 

This happens with writers as well, but that's for another blog.  If you have spent any amount of time studying comics you have no doubt come across a favorite by now.  Be that favorite a weekly/daily newspaper strip or a monthly comic, if you follow the natural progression of things, you picked it up somewhere along the line and traced that line back to it's beginning.  When you got to that start point, you may have been shocked by what you found there. 

I went through some of my favorites a while ago.  Doonsbury, Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes...even Wil Eisner's seminal classic, The Spirit.  In each of these, I went back to the beginning and was surprised to find how crudely they were put together.  The flash of genius was there, true...but the art was not what I was accustomed to.  As I read on, through the continuity of the piece, I began to see start points.  That is where this character got his signature look...that is where he started using that plot line.  These beginnings all pointed to one inescapable conclusion.  I was watching an artist evolve before my very eyes.  I began intentionally seeking out first published works of my current favorite artists.  Craftsman with talent and style I aspire to all had to start somewhere.  What I found amazed me.  Even these great masters began the same.  Their initial experiments while acceptable enough for professional work were Light Years away from their current talents.  This discovery both inspired and intimidated me.  If THESE guys, whose very names shake the graphic medium like earthquakes had that crudeness in them, surely mine could be overlooked.  By that same token, if I failed to grow at this level, my dreams of being the best there is would be crashed on the rocks of reality.

I began looking closely at my older works with this in mind and saw that, just as with the masters, my older work showed a crudity and roughness that matched theirs.  There were also flashes.  A panel here, a pose there...hell, even a car in the background all held within them the hint of something more to come.  I was watching myself evolve before my own eyes.  Trial and experimentation begat my particular outlook.  I saw my proclivity to draw 3/4 downward facial poses.  I saw the birth of my love of a sillouetted figure in a long, tall panel.  This trip was as ecucational as it was fun.  I was visiting old playgrounds with a new perspective. 

Where it got strange was with my current project, The Portland Express.  I have been working on this for almost a year now.  I started this project as a learning place.  My goal was to practice the craft as best as I was able and grow my skills.  My intention was never to publish the work, though that has since become the point.

What I saw in the beginnings of this project were the same crudities my 'evolution' had eliminated.  I regressed back to First Stage with the first page.  I showed growth from that point on.  I could see the beginnings of the characters styles and my layout tendencies, but I could also see my lame attempts at exceeding my current abilities.   I learned new techniques almost weekly, from scanning image quality to lettering with a computer to eventually coloring the entire project with photoshop. This seemed the best I could do at the time, and I remember thinking to myself "This is my best work so far" with each 4-page chapter I produced.  What I realize now is that that self acknowledgement was the outward sign of my inner evolution.  I was changing subtly but surely and what's more...I was noticing it.

This left me with the following dilemma.  I am better than I was a year ago.  If I want to make the project worthwhile to someone, don't I owe them my very best?  By that token, do I go back into the older issues and redo them to bring them up to speed with my current abilities?  I run a danger in that of creating an endless loop of improvement.  I get better with every page.   Does this mean that I redo every single page from here to eternity until I am satisfied? 

Left with the choice of giving the public their money's worth and creating an endless circle of work, I took the coward's way out in this decision and choose to do nothing.  I will allow my evolution to dangle in the wind for all to see, set in the hopes that the public will bear with me long enough to see the growth themselves.
At any rate, if years from now, my name is spoken in the revered tones as the masters and some aspiring artist is studying my work with the same eye towards growth, he too will spot evolution and be inspired.

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