In Which I Explain Where I Have Been

aprilprev久しぶり! You may have thought that I fell into a ditch somewhere, or just stopped updating my blog entirely? Or that I had been entirely consumed by Dragon Age: Inquisition? And you’d be partially right? There was no ditch, yes I did play a lot of DAI but I finished my (second) play-through, and I am updating now, so let’s just skip straight to the excuses right? Or the non-excuses, as it were? (ノ◕ヮ◕)ノ*:・゚✧ 

 

If you follow me on Twitter, then this big news isn’t anything new to you, but– when I came home I was contacted by NASA to work on a comic project with them about the GPM. Yes, NASA. It took a few months to get everything up and running, but I’ve spent the last month working on comic pages for NASA.

Just let that sink in there. I know it still hasn’t for me!

Cue obligatory statement of my opinions being my own, and how I do not represent the views or opinions of NASA.

This week, I finished up my penciled pages and sent them off for approval. Once everything is OKed, I’ll be sharing with you all my progress as my pages go from pencils, to inks, to colors. It’s all quite exciting! Although that means you all will see how messy my pencils are. It’s shameful, really. I have to ink my own things, because I could not ask someone to make heads or tails of all my different colors of pencil marking scribbles.

 

I’ve been meaning to post the news about this sooner, but there’s been so much work with getting these pages done, there just has not been any extra time for me to also update on the blog. But, if you are interested, I’ve been posting teasers of my pencils on Twitter and Instagram.

When I know the details of when and how the comic will be available, you all will be the first to know!

 

In other exciting news, I will also be having a table at SPX! After applying to several conventions this year, and consistently being put on wait lists, I was convinced that I would just not be at any cons this year, but SURPRISE! I was one of the lucky ones who was chosen for a table at SPX. So if you are local to Maryland, or aren’t and you are coming to the show anyway, please come see me! I’ll have half a table and will hopefully be watercoloring up a storm! This will be my first indie convention, as all my previous experience has been at been at anime conventions, and even those I haven’t been to in four years, so this is going to be an interesting experience! I’ll have a new comic short premiere there, which will serve as a teaser for my webcomic starting sometime late this year/early next year.

This weekend I’ll be making the final decision on which story to go with– as I have been working on two completely different stories in my downtime for the last few months. Will it be the fantasy epic? Or the shoujo romance? I’m not sure yet! I’ve wanted to do both stories for so long, it’s hard to choose!

 

And tomorrow Age of Ultron comes out, and I know my need to draw Avengers will be strong, but I have to work on pages! Must resist! o(╥﹏╥)o

2015… i.e. the year I crash through everything

Happy new year everyone!! … three weeks later. So many things have happened in such a short time. My life has changed dramatically since December, because of losing a very loved family member. I’m still very sad about the loss, but if anything, it’s reminded me of just how much time we have on this earth, and that we need to make the most of it. It’s my goal this year to finally make that [perilless] jump into supporting myself completely with my art alone. I know it’s not going to happen in the next week, but it’s my goal to be doing it by the end of the year. Which means, kicking into high gear to produce things for the portfolio.

This site will also be moving in the future. Remember how ajamoore.com used to be a redirect to this site? Well that’s going to change within the next month or so– meaning ajamoore.com will be my main site, and ye olde ajamandtoast.net being a redirect. Hopefully, the switch will change without much notice. If you want to know when it happens, keep an eye on my twitter, since I am pretty much attached to it, and I’ll keep my feed updated when I do it. It also means if you have this blog bookmarked, you need to update it.

I’m in the process of rescanning some of the older pieces, and getting much higher res versions of my illustrations, which will take me a bit, and has to be snuck into illustration time and Dragon Age marathons. Because, priorities, right? Just kidding. I just finished Inquisition the other day, and restarted Origins, but I’m doing a much much slower playthrough, and worked out a deal with myself that for every two hours of illustration work I do, I get an hour of DA. It’s been working out pretty well, seeing as if I want to play, I have to work, so it’s incentive to get off my butt and draw!

 

Oh, and did I mention my studio is finally all finished?

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There’s still a few things here and there to fix (like the curtains…), but the majority is done! I am so happy and relieved to finally have this ready. It’s a great little room for me work in, and everything I need is at my fingertips, instead of spread out amongst a bunch of containers spread throughout the house. So much easier.

 

Here’s to the new year! May it be totally awesome and filled with new arts!

When Magical Girls Rule the World (or making a tough choice when you pick your projects)

Yesterday I was sitting in the gym of one of my schools, waiting for the opening ceremony of the year to begin. I like to people watch, so I showed up early and watched the first-year students approach the seat assignment board with their parent (or parents, or sometimes with friends), in their brand new, still super-stiff school uniform. They had the perfect mixture of eagerness and downright anxiety about what was to follow. The school is a technical school, so the population is mostly boys. As I saw girls start to filter into their ranks, I was really happy. I’m not underestimating when I say that there are less than ten girls in the first year class. Last year there was less than five. The girls at the school have always reminded me of me– picking the more difficult path in order to make your dreams come true.

So what does any of this have to do with creating comics? Well, I had an epiphany while watching this opening ceremony. I’m not even sure what truly caused it, but I suspect it was when I started to think about just how hard it will be for those girls in their new life. How they made that choice, and how much respect they must have for themselves for not going down the most traveled path and instead following their own ambitions. And then I thought about myself, and the choice that I made a little over a year ago to accept the position offered to me to come teach in a foreign country. And how hard my life was, and how I’m just now getting comfortable enough, but still long for home, and the more I thought about all of this, the more my mind kept saying “Man, wouldn’t that make a great comic?” Because in the end, my brain is hardwired for trying to figure out how my daily experiences will make good content for stories. It’s what I do. And in that thought, the idea of doing a magical girl comic came back to the forefront in my mind.

I think I just heard the record scratch as I lost everyone in my train of thought. That happens a lot, I’m used to it.

 

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What was not to be…

This was not the first time I’ve had this thought about magical girls. Back at SCAD I actually made an animatic of a crack idea called Super Hyper Pretty Magical Awesome, but did it more as of a joke than anything. My friends and I loved the magical girl trope, and I loved messing around with it. But in the end, all that came of it was a 90 second animatic that left my professor rolling with laughter (as I was aiming to do), and a maquette that later broke. Over the next year or so, I occasionally sketched more magical girl things, but I was more focused on doing serious work (that was during my phase when I was fed up with people telling me I had a tendency to “go cute” so I did some really dark stories… all that which made editors question my sanity– but we’re not going to go into that!).

It was those occasional sketches that landed me with a trial issue at a publisher, and four months of further development and 32 pages later, left me stressed because the project had come to a dead-end. The editor would take a long time in getting back to me for feedback (for those of you who have not dealt with a publisher before this is kind of par for the course– editors are just as busy as artists, bless them!), and in the end the editor got promoted to a really upper level job so the idea got lost in the shuffle because nothing had really taken off yet. My inspiration to work on the title faded fast because it was my first time finally getting that far in da biz, so it was really disheartening. Over the next two years, I’ve poked and prodded at the idea. I even wrote another comic that is a prequel to the new universe that I started to work on. But the falling apart of the deal hit me hard and I wasn’t sure what to do. There was also this little unknown anime called Puella Magi Madoka that had just finished, which pretty much deconstructed everything about the magical girl trope and I wasn’t sure if I could, or wanted to follow that amazing work (because if you have been living under a rock and haven’t seen it, you should remedy that– even if magical girl is not your thing).

But let’s get back to the opening ceremony. What does watching that have to do with the magical girls? The school uniforms, maybe? NOPE. Perhaps the fact that most popular magical girl series take place in a Japanese High School and I was sitting in one at that moment? NOPE. Sakura falling? NOPE. What the opening ceremony and magical girl genre share is a common theme. I promise this won’t become another storytelling lecture, but I do want to address theme for a moment. Think about your first day of high school. It was a frightening experience. Everyone is taller than you, some even look like grown adults already, you are in fear of being shoved into a locker or getting lost in a massive school, and the sinking fear that you are only four (or three) years away from adulthood looms over your life. Then you have to think about what you want to be, whether or not you want to go to college, the list goes on and on. You are a lost soul in a new world. A fish out of water. So is, or at least should be, a heroine in a magical girl story. She has fear, hesitations, she is uncertain of herself and her new powers, whether she is up to the task etc etc. Why do you think a lot of magical girl series start with that transfer girl student? Because the elements tie together like a pretty little bow. There, that’s all I’ll discuss about theme. For now.

So they have a common theme. That was my connection.

Now that my brain was thinking about this, I couldn’t get it out of my head (see this post). Now the responsible thing would be to ignore it, like I advised, or just jot some notes and think about it later because holy crap I’m trying to do this big webcomic series launch! … but that’s the thing. Despite being, in what I thought, the perfect environment to work on Butterfly Dance, it has become anything but. I’m hating working on the outline, and am tearing out my hair trying to get all the pieces to come together. Butterfly Dance has become the ever dreaded Pet Project. You know, that one idea that just lurks about in the back of your brain, that you’ve had for years (we’re coming up on ten years now), that you keep putting off until things are “just right” or when you are a “better artist.” And I’m beginning to think I keep putting it on the backburner because I just can’t get the story to come together in something resembling a cohesive plot that is interesting to someone other than my Furby (yes, I have one– and he thinks Butterfly Dance is off the chain!). And maybe it does need more time… or maybe I just need to forget about it for all and good. I don’t know. But what I do know is if you are hating a project, it’s time to pull the breaks, because if you hate it, anyone who reads it is going to know. I’m intending on spending the next two or more years with this title and I can’t bring myself to even draw anything for it at all? BAD SIGN.

A good sign, is that as soon as I made that mental acceptance to stop working on Butterfly Dance, suddenly my mind was awash with ideas for Super Hyper Pretty Magical Awesome and got more work done on outlining for that then I had in three months of trying to work on some development for Butterfly Dance.

There are other advantages of making this switch as well. For one, a lot of the universe is already developed. There are going to be several changes in the characters background and such, but a lot of that had been worked out already in the silent interim I had before while waiting to hear back about the sample. It also takes me much less time to produce a page of Super Hyper Pretty Magical Awesome than anything else, because it is a quickly drawn style. The style for Super Hyper Pretty Magical Awesome is completely different than my normal art style– its much simpler and human proportions are extremely exaggerated (doll heads! doll heads!). The downside of that, is that after doing the 32 page pitch, I had to work for about a month to get the wacky proportions back under control in my other art. But one fix to that is to continue my weekly Sunday morning art sessions, where I work on something completely different, and I could strive to keep my normal human proportions in check. There is also the difficult task of outlining the series. So far in all it’s incarnations Super Hyper Pretty Magical Awesome has only been a randomly funny concept, and I would like to tell a cohesive story, which makes things a bit more complicated.

However, in bringing out my old files from the pitch I made three year ago, I felt a sort of renewal in wanting to play in this world again. So here’s to Super Hyper Pretty Magical Awesome! I hope you all enjoy the ride as much as I do while working on it!

On World Building – Part 2

Wow going back and reading the previous part, I kind of jumped all over the place. Where’s an editor when you need one? Last week was pretty crazy, and I’m still trying to get into the groove of writing these entries. To review: 1) Exposition is bad, avoid it as much as possible 2) A good way to avoid exposition is to get all of the information written out beforehand, which will help you think of different ways to approach giving this information to your audience. Annnnd that’s pretty much it. So moving on, I want to try to explain some more pitfalls that writers encounter when building a world from the ground up.

 

I would like, if I may, to share some terrible writing with you…

 

Eraiyah is a stuck up sword master who knows nothing but her own awesomeness. Although she is only a non-wizard, or Xiamm, she is a respected treasure hunter who has a reputation for unnecessary violence. Uligck is a first rate wizard who has been booted out of his high status for reasons unknown. He and Eraiyah travel from Xiamm village to Xiamm village as they are looking for the buried treasures of Sykel. The Sykel, or high wizards/priests, are in charge of the anything and everything in the country.

Hundreds of years prior, the Sykel used their sorcery to produce items that could cure ailments, bring forth riches, promise a good harvest, etc., etc. In the present day, the few Xiamm who haven’t been forced into servitude, make profit on the hunting of such treasures. One of these Sykel was an alchemist named Fosley Lahmauh. Legend has it he created a serum, called Melethrill, that could be the turning point for society. While it could bring peace amongst the planet, it could also be its destruction. Lahmauh hid the serum before being murdered. Now, the two outlaws, Eraiyah and Uligck, are looking for it. And while they were hired to find Melethrill, each has their own personal reasons for searching for the legendary elixir, but they have agreed on a truce until the serum is found. After that, all bets are off.

Mirrith, who is the leader of the high council of Sykel, is also looking for Melethrill. Her sole focus is the complete destruction of the Xiamm class. Thriving on the energy of dead souls, Mirrith delights in killing helpless second-class citizens. However, in the public eye, Mirrith is a caring leader, loved by both classes. She appeals to the public, calling for a truce between mages and humans.

 

Yep this an excerpt from a pitch that I wrote nine years ago. In fact, this is the original pitch of the story I am currently developing as a webcomic for later in the year. If you actually made it through the second paragraph without going cross-eyed, then you deserve a cake because oh the terrible.

Let us take a look at why this is so confusing and what to do to avoid when world building…

 

1. Too many strange names. The characters have strange names that are hard to figure out how to pronounce when read. The castes have strange names that again, on first glance would be hard to pronounce. Not to mention, all of these strange words are thrown at the audience in one chapter. Yes, I did make an attempt to remind the reader what was what, but holy crap it’s confusing for me and I wrote it.

Solution: Simplification. In the process of world building, to give the illusion of some great meaning or purpose, or just to be awesome, a writer will try to assign new names for things that we have in our society now. The problem with this is once you start down that path, you have to rename everything in the world, not just bits here and there. And while you are doing that, your readers must comprehend every new term thrown at them. Now yes, there are examples where this is done well. Harry Potter comes to mind, but if you think back Hagrid and company spent a lot of time explaining wizarding things to Harry. And even then, save for the money, most of the names were easy to understand. They weren’t all invented words. Most of them were English, or had a latin root that was easily identified. Another is the John Carter series. But do you notice a trend? These are all books– not comics. Comics are read faster than books and more information is doled out per page (or at least should be…). They are also examples of a “fish out of water” story, where the main character is out of his element and therefore has other characters explain things to s/he and there we walk a fine line of the exposition monster again. A good “fish out of water” story is possible, but they take great care and crafting to be done well. And even then, simplifying the complication helps both your audience and your main character quickly grab onto their new reality.

 

Let’s take a look at the same pitch again, but this time take out all the confusing caste names and change the characters names to something a bit more “normal”:

Eraiyah is a stuck up sword master who knows nothing but her own awesomeness. Although she is a non-wizard, she is a respected treasure hunter who has a reputation for unnecessary violence. Erik is a first rate wizard who has been booted out of his high status for reasons unknown. He and Eraiyah travel from village to village of the non-wizard class as they are looking for the buried treasures of the high priests. The priests, are in charge of the anything and everything in the country.

Hundreds of years prior, the high priests used their sorcery to produce items that could cure ailments, bring forth riches, promise a good harvest, etc., etc. In the present day, the few non-wizards who haven’t been forced into servitude, make profit on the hunting of such treasures. One of these high priests was an alchemist named Foster Langley. Legend has it he created a serum, called mithril, that could be the turning point for society. While it could bring peace amongst the planet, it could also be its destruction. Langley hid the serum before being murdered. Now, the two outlaws, Eraiyah and Erik, are looking for it. And while they were hired to find mithril, each has their own personal reasons for searching for the legendary elixir, but they have agreed on a truce until the serum is found. After that, all bets are off.

Meredith, who is the leader of the council of high priests, is also looking for mithril. Her sole focus is the complete destruction of the non-wizarding class. Thriving on the energy of dead souls, Meredith delights in killing helpless the second-class citizens. However, in the public eye, Meredith is a caring leader, loved by both classes. She appeals to the public, calling for a truce between wizards and non-wizards.

 

Now with the fancy words and names taken out, we see that this plot is pretty simple– in fact with the fancy words taken out, it’s clear just how cliche it truly is (which is another good argument for simplification because it will be easier to spot!).

2. Lack of story focus. Go back and read that all again (if you dare!). Tell me what the story is. You can’t really, because there’s not much there. Two people are searching for a potion, there’s a villain. She’s evil because she kills people. Annnnd that’s about it. True, this is only a pitch– but even a pitch is supposed to grab the attention of potential readers and want them to read more. See what happens to the characters. From that pitch you can already guess the good guys will find the potion, and everything will come up roses. Who cares that it takes place in a society with wizards and potions? YAWN FEST.

Solution: Focus on the story first! Story is the most important element, not world building. Your world should support your story, not the other way around. Have you ever seen a movie that you were really floored by the richness of the world it took place in, but the story was terrible? Avatar, anyone? That’s a clear case where story was not the focus. But then you have movies like Inception where the story is really good, and the world building is there (literally), but its not the focus. The focus is the story of a man who comes to terms with his wife killing herself and how he blames himself. There’s also a heist in there, but that really is the secondary plot. Everything else in the world is there to contribute to the plot and the secondary plot.

As a comic creator, your focus should be on story.

3. My last piece of world building advice, which isn’t really in my pitch, is you need to establish rules in your world. These rules should be made clear early in the story, and cannot be changed. Period. The second you change them, you will lose your readers (oh the cries of ‘deus ex machina!’).

Hagaren is a perfect example of excellent storytelling WITH excellent world building. But you’ll notice, Arakawa-sensei doesn’t try to make her world too strange and unusual. With the alchemy, she has already introduced a different element into the mix and the first chapter is spent making sure that the audience understands how alchemy works in the universe. She establishes the rules and how they cannot be broken (or the cost you pay when breaking them in some characters’ cases). Just about everything else in the story is normal, in an established and understood history that while alternate, is not all that different than ours, even though it takes place in “another world.” She also doesn’t spend the first chapter bogging us down with the backstory of Ed and Al, and instead saves it to dole out it parts after we have grown to care about the characters, which supports my whole “write the backstory out first but then don’t use it literally” notion of the last entry.

Is it hard to follow all of these points? Hell yeah it is. But it’s worth the effort. Think about comics that you love that have really good world building. Go back and read the first books of those series and take note of how they introduce the world. What works? What doesn’t? How would you approach the things that don’t work? Take notes! It really helps, trust me!

On World Building – Part 1

For my stories, I’ve always had a tendency to think epic. It’s best practice to know what your weaknesses are as any type of artist, and that’s definitely one of mine

Back in college, when I was in my script writing class, my professor (the amazing Mark Kneece– hi Mark!) told me frequently that my short stories were too big for short stories. Like I would develop and cram too much into my short stories because I had so much to say. Short stories have never been my forte, and I would be the first to admit that. I think about too much of the universe in the story to keep it short. It’s actually why I started to focus on writing oneshots in my fanfiction writing, because I wanted to try to learn how to tell an effective short story. It sort of worked? But it’s easier to do that within an established fandom, because everyone who is reading it already comfortable with the characters.

But what do you do when everything is original and no one knows any character from Adam?

The question of the ages! Each writer approaches this differently, but here’s my take on it…

In order to address my epic tendencies, my approach is to write, essentially, two different works. The first one is disjointed and would make absolutely no sense to anyone who read it. It contains back-stories, character wants & desires, even reasons for choices in clothing and hair. And if the story takes place in a different world, like mine tend to, the list of things to address grows exponentially. What is the history of the world? What types of technology do they use? What currency do they have? What are normal things to eat? I think of this as building the foundation of the story, and most of it won’t even be used within the actual story– but it’s something as the creator of the world that I should know. It help brings depth to the world and the story itself. I essentially write a guide to the world.

I don’t want to give the impression that I spend years working on this and everything is all typed out and pretty. Most of it is in short hand in my current handy notebook that I mentioned in the last post or in the margins of sketches (which I try to copy over into a notebook if I think about it… which is about 50% of the time ^^;;;). At this point, however, I’m trying not to think too much about the plot. This is the process that helps me get to know my characters and become comfortable with their voices and the environment in which they live. This process can take a lot of time and I think the important thing is to not rush it– but make sure to not use it as an excuse to procrastinate going further into the story. I’m not saying to write the freaking Silmarillion. I know I don’t have the patience to do all of that. But saying that, you need to think about these things and not just say “Okay, these characters live in medieval times with witches and wizards!” I can already feel myself yawning just reading that. Make it your own, just like Tolkien did!

Why take this approach? In doing this, you will get all of the wordy exposition out of your system. Get it alllllllll out. Exposition should be used just like salt– rarely and only to add when it’s needed to make a scene (or cake :D) work. And even then, the more you can subdue the exposition, the better.

If you have it all written out before moving on to writing the script, its much easier to incorporate it into scenes instead of sitting down and having scene after scene of exposition (i.e. the Star Wars prequels). If you haven’t seen them before, I would highly recommend watching all three of the Plinkett Star Wars reviews on RedLetterMedia. Not only are they really funny, but from a storytelling perspective, they are really eye opening. Warning: There is some foul language and really morbid humor in the videos– but they are very enjoyable nonetheless. In the episode III review, how to use the language of cinema is discussed, which is 100% applicable to comics. Framing, blocking, and using visual elements to feed information to your audience is crucial for good comic book storytelling. It’s the old adage of showing, not telling.

In prose it’s a bit easier to point things out to a writer and say “You’re showing, not telling.” Comics it can be a bit more difficult, because the writer can be doing it with the dialogue and not even realize it. This is why I encourage writing all of this exposition vomit out before even thinking about a script. When it’s time to move to the script, you can use what you have written out to think about different ways to present this information using other storytelling techniques, instead of it only being delivered by dialogue.

For example, in the first Scott Pilgrim book we are introduced to Scott, his life, etc. All pretty normal right? And as we are getting comfortable with the Scott character, he suddenly is challenged to a fight via email and just deletes it after reading only half of it. But we as the audience are given what we need– fight to the death and Matthew Patel. Then when Matthew Patel shows up at the concert, and they proceed to fight, the comic doesn’t just pull the breaks and explain the evil exes hierarchy, that Scott is a master fighter, or even why they are fighting. Scott fights Patel and we move on the with the story. Some bits of information are fed to us about the evil exes, but not all. It encourages us to want to read more. The first time I read SP, I remember being like “WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED?” for like three seconds when the fight started. But then you roll with it. The fights fit right in with Scott’s established world and don’t break any of the other logic presented to the reader. The story, in the end, is not about Scott’s fighting abilities anyway. Each “fight” in the series can be seen as an allegory for getting over problems encountered during a relationship. The chapters leading up to the fights illustrate the problem, the problem is then presented in the form of an ex, Scott defeats the problem and learns from it.

When working with a medium like comics, every line of dialogue is very important and should move the story along. I was taught in the school of thought that adding dialogue is much easier than subtracting. Keep lines to a bare minimum, but keep the plot moving. It’s definitely a juggle, but making it work it entirely worth it.