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Dilettante 025: New Year's Resolutions for a Comics Artist

Steve Lieber

There's a new year on the calendar. A week of double shifts at the drawing board has helped me catch up for all the work time lost to holiday celebrations. It's time for me to finally look ahead and think about what I want from myself as a comics artist in 2015. I'm halfway through one project and looking forward to the next. But beyond my actual commitments, I've given myself some actual, for-real New Year's Resolutions and look forward to pursuing them as energetically as possible.

1. Read more international comics

There is an amazing world of comics out there. Every day, thousands of cartoonists are putting pen to paper and nib to screen. It's important to remember that several of them are not in Portland.

I kid. We're in a golden age of easy access to translated international comics. There's no excuse for not immersing myself in the deep catalog of works by masters like Tardi and Tezuka the way I have with Toth, for not giving Blutch the same scrutiny I have Barks. As a lover of great comics, I can look forward to many hours of pleasurable reading. And as a craftsman, I know they've got plenty to teach me about what my medium can do.

2. Pay attention to diversity

One of comics' great strengths as a medium is that it allows the cartoonist to create stylized worlds with their own rules. Buildings that reach a mile into the air? Sure! Everyone's got extra fingers? Why not? ( Unfortunately, lots of cartoonists—myself included—have been guilty of creating worlds where non-white people are virtually invisible. That's not what the real world looks like, and I certainly hope it isn't wish fulfillment for anyone making comics. The comic I'm working on right now, Quantum and Woody, is set in Washington DC. More than half of the DC population is black. I need to make sure that the story I tell with my drawings reflects that.

3. Draw more from life

As a younger artist, I did tons of life drawing. In most places I've lived throughout my adult life, if you asked me “Where can I go for drop-in life drawing sessions?” I could rattle off several answers immediately. But I've gotten older and felt the crush of deadlines and other responsibilities weighing on me more heavily, and so I've stopped making time for drawing from a live model.

I worry about this. First, I know that life drawing makes me a better artist. There's nothing like close, prolonged observation of a model to keep an artist's eye sensitive to the amazing natural forms of the human body―to light and shadow, to gesture and weight. Studying anatomy books and drawing from photos are valuable, but I just get more out of life studies. It helps me build a mental library that I'm continuously consulting.

4. Pay attention to fashion

I sometimes wonder if there's a condition like face-blindness, but for clothing. If there is, I might suffer from it. Whole generations and their trends can pass, collars and cuffs widen and narrow, hems lengthen and retreat, patterns bloom across fabric and then disappear, all without my noticing that anything has changed.

I'm getting better about this, but I need to redouble my efforts, because reverting to easily drawn 'default' clothing is a recipe for tepid, generic work. Yes, it takes time to do research and find out what real people in specific circumstances actually are wearing, but those details help bring characters to life, particularly for an artist working in a fairly literal, unstylized mode. There's a world of difference between showing two characters wearing the same generic shoes and the contrast you get if one has kitten heels and the other scuffed high-tops. 

5. Find the funny

Just about any scene that isn't supposed to shock, sadden or appall will benefit from humor. I'm working on funny titles these days, so this resolution is, to some extent, baked into my job, but a cartoonist can embed laughs in scenes that aren't explicitly written as funny. That character who has a walk-on to impart some important fact—maybe she just came from a costume party? It probably doesn't matter that that isn't in the script. If the other characters say nothing in their dialogue, the gag is likely to work better. Is an animal doing something interesting in the background? If characters are talking over coffee, maybe one of doesn't realize that the cream has gone bad until he takes a sip. And always, always look for little opportunities to show characters being themselves. There are few things more pleasurable than a moment when a character does something that's both surprising and absolutely in-character.

6. Seek out and patronize webcomics

Honestly, it feels a little retrograde to even call them “webcomics” in 2015. They're just comics, and the only thing that distinguishes most of them from print comics is the ease of distribution. Whatever we call them, that's where so much of the energy is right now. This is a world full of cartoonists who have never had to water down a gag to pacify an editor, or rework a storyline to fit a page count or a marketing initiative. They've been steadily building loyal audiences one reader at a time, and developing their craft specifically to communicate their own stories and ideas. The failures are often as interesting as the successes. If I want to stay fired up about the possibilities of the medium, I need to read what people are doing online. And just as importantly, I need to put my money where my mouth is and pay for the work I'm enjoying. Sometimes that means buying the print edition when it becomes available, and sometimes it means crowdfunding. I'm backing several cartoonists on Patreon right now, and I'm sure there'll be more added to that list.

7. Build the world

I often hear artists groan about requests to draw “a nondescript warehouse.” The reason it's nondescript is that no one could be bothered to describe it. Any setting, any prop, any background detail can make the characters and their world more vivid. Cartoonists don't get a lot of room to create character—maybe 100 panels in a comic, give or take, and most of that space belongs to text or to conveying the basic actions that communicate the plot. I don't want to crowd my pages, but I want to make sure that I'm making effective use of the space I have to build an interesting world, and hook my readers the way the comics I love hooked me.

Have you made any comics resolutions of your own? Share them with me on Facebook  or Twitter. Or post them on Tumblr and tag me.

Steve Lieber’s Dilettante appears the second Tuesday of each month here on Toucan!