Dilettante 033: Getting It Right

Toucan reading a comic
Steve Lieber

I owe a lot of good things in my career to research. I don’t say this to boast, but from conversations I’ve had with people who hired me, I’ve found that I’ve gotten a lot of jobs because of my willingness to add extra steps to my process. What are those extra steps? Finding out what things actually look like or how they work before I draw them on the page. And here’s the kicker. I’m not that good at it, and I don’t think I try particularly hard. The ugly truth is that the standards for getting things right in mainstream comics have been, at times, painfully, embarrassingly low. A willingness to do any research whatsoever can help your work stand out in the field. So let’s take a look at some resources to help comics creators get things right, and ask some questions about just how right things really need to be.

We’ll do the latter first. Is research necessary at all? Here’s a quote from David Mamet:

“I was once deeply involved in doing research for some project or other, and Shel Silverstein invited me to come by and do something fun. I said I can’t cause I’m doing research. He said, “Never do research. If you do research, you’re just reading a lot of trash by some guy who didn’t do research.”

If there’s a lesson at all, I think it’s to restrict yourself to appropriate research. Don’t toss a good story or make a bad picture just because the premise might not survive investigation. You’re not (necessarily) trying to create a world that’s 100% accurate. You’re going to have to stylize and abbreviate to make an enjoyable and accessible story. Your goal as a storyteller is to create a world on paper that’s believable by that world’s own rules. A war comic gets its impact, its sense of verisimilitude from well-researched jargon, uniforms, vehicles & weaponry. A Roadrunner & Coyote comic doesn’t even need to keep gravity consistent, and what few props there are only need to be recognizable, not accurate.

Most stories will be somewhere in between. You’re going to want to use research to add richness and depth to the world you create, but you don’t want to fall into a sinkhole that paralyzes you or kills your productivity. Here are some resources that comics creators can use to give their work authenticity when it’s needed.

1. Google Image Search

Duh. This is the 900-lb. gorilla. If you just need to know what a moose or a 747 looks like, Google’s right there for you. Just be careful when using Google image search. It casts a pretty wide net. Just because you typed in “Chicago police” doesn’t mean all the police uniforms you see in the results are going to be from the Chicago PD, or that they’ll be contemporary. A search for “1980s donut shop” will bring up plenty of pictures that aren’t from the ‘80s. Take the extra moment to click through and look at the context in which the image is presented.

2. Google Maps

If you’re drawing an exterior in a real contemporary location in a sizable town or city, there’s a pretty good chance that Google Maps has Street View photos of it. You can take a virtual stroll through the neighborhood and harvest all sorts of wonderful visual possibilities for your panels. It’s all there for you: the architecture, the streets and sidewalks, the lampposts and bus stops and municipal waste cans, all those little details that can bring a setting to life.

3. Toys, Scale Models, and Props

When you’re drawing something complicated from multiple angles, there’s nothing as helpful as having it in front of you so you can draw it from direct observation. Hot Wheels cars (1:64 scale) are helpful and cheap, but larger models made at scales like 1:24 are a lot more accurate and, (in my experience) easier to draw from or photograph.

If you’re working on a crime or military story, Airsoft guns are unbelievably handy to have around. When you have to draw the same gun hundreds of times in the course of making a comic, the time you save by shooting photo ref of someone holding and aiming the weapon can easily add up to a whole week or more. Just be sure to supplement your research by looking up YouTube videos that show people using the weapon. For just about any weapon you’ll ever need to draw, you can find a YouTube video of an expert carrying, loading, firing and cleaning that weapon. There’s no excuse for not getting those details right.

IMPORTANT: if you’re taking photo reference with people holding guns, even toy guns with blaze-orange barrels, don’t do it out in public. It is way, way too easy for someone else to misunderstand what they’re seeing. Take those photos indoors.

4. Spend Some Time in the World You’re Going to Draw

If you want to draw a western, visit a ranch. Get on horseback if possible. Doing a police story? It can be surprisingly easy to arrange a ride-along with your local department. If your hero and heroine have their long tearful goodbye at an auto dealership, visit a dealership! While dodging salesmen, you’ll notice all sorts of possibilities for staging and storytelling that would never have occurred to you sitting alone in your studio. Wherever you go, snap photos if possible, make notes, ask questions. Do what you can to immerse yourself in the world you hope to depict.

5. Books

For some things, books are a much, much better resource than the Internet. Websites are fast, but are often disappointingly shallow. A seemingly useful site might only have a couple of low-res images of what you’re looking for, whereas a good book on the subject could be filled cover to cover. If you need to go deep on a topic, buy books about it. The library is there to help you, too. Your local library is staffed by information professionals and likely has access to helpful resources you’ve never even heard of.

6. Consultants

When I was drawing Whiteout (Oni Press, 1998) Google didn’t exist yet, and the web was not well archived or indexed. To draw the story, a fairly naturalistic crime comic set in Antarctica, I relied heavily on books and magazine articles to get the setting right. But even after spending weeks reading everything I could find, I still had a lot of questions. In one early scene in a cafeteria, I staged a panel with a full cafeteria tray in the foreground, and a put a single-serving carton of milk on the tray. It wasn’t an important detail. The tray made it immediately clear where we were without taking up much space on a densely paneled page. And the shape of the little milk carton worked well with the composition of that panel. But I didn’t feel confident about what I’d drawn so I ran it past an expert, a guy who had worked for a couple of seasons at McMurdo Base in Antarctica. I told him what I had drawn and he told me two things. 1: It’s a galley, not a cafeteria. 2: The nearest cow is two thousand miles away in New Zealand. So in McMurdo, the galley serves powdered milk from an urn, not fresh milk in cartons. I erased the milk carton and drew in a slice of sheet cake.

7. When All Else Fails, Draw Something Else

Move the camera. Cast a deep shadow over the part you’re not sure about. Find a different detail to emphasize.

All of these resources can help you make your comics better. By doing a little extra work, you can add richness and variety to your stories, avoid clichés, and give your readers a more exciting visual experience. Just watch out for three traps. Don’t let fear of getting things wrong keep you from getting things done. Don’t fall down a procrastinatory research rabbit-hole. And don’t overwhelm your pictures with detail just because it’s there in a photo. Use whatever you can find that makes your story better. Discard the rest. You’ve got a story to tell.

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

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