Anatomy of a Cartoon

Well well, no blog entries here since January of 2011, huh? Wow! That’s a lot of not blogging! I aim to rectify that (just this once) with a new entry today! (See below.)

Often I get asked what goes into creating a new cartoon for the Mountain Xpress (alternative weekly free paper based in Asheville, NC and distributed there and amongst the neighboring counties)and by often, I mean never. However, just in case anyone was actually interested in such a thing, I have put together this step by step, behind-the-scenes, DVD extra, cinema verité look at just what goes into those cartoons that you probably don’t see every week. Won’t you please read on? The process starts as soon as the last cartoon has been sent in on the Friday afternoon deadline. Actually, a period of relief and recuperation follows that submission and a weekend of not having to think about the cartoon follows, but honestly, as soon as Monday morning rears it’s weekly head, that sinking feeling of another impending deadline starts ulcerating and the quest for ideas to do the cartoon about starts anew. This need for a new idea becomes more frantic as the week goes on, of course, and the fact that even if several stories of a local nature (the only kind of stories I can do, if I am to follow my mandated function as a local cartoonist for a local paper that is all about local and how local matters, um, matter) are current topics, they may also be topics that A) do not lend themselves easily to cartoon lampooning fodder or B) are in the same vein as similar topics that I and/or other local cartoonists have already done, sometimes many times, before. The search for inspiration within such narrow stipulations can be a problematic one for sure, but having the internet and no actual job to commute to, work at and get paid from to waste my valuable time, I am able to scour the local media outlets, social networks and Twitterverses for that one nugget of a twinkling of a kernel of a spark of an idea maybe that might could possibly work if I try to tie it to some other seemingly connected or divergent or paradoxically juxtaposed incident out of which I can hopefully find a way to squeeze some amount of humor or at least social commentary.


Researching ideas for cartoon - clicken to enlargen

Once I have the idea (in the case of this particular week’s cartoon, the news had been about the New Belgium brewery announcement in Asheville, which happened not long after Sierra Nevada brewery announced plans to locate in neighboring Henderson County. There had also been news items about the long proposed, but never started Ecusta Trail from Henderson to Transylvania Counties, as well as news that Transylvania County was becoming a known biking destination. Some talk about a plan to link the two new future breweries with each other by a bike trail and the usual local grump grumbling about rails to trails, and biking in general from the online comments of stories about them, gave me the idea of imagining a future where such a wonder (to a biking and other greenway enthusiasts) could actually happen and then the chance to bring it down to earth with the reality of one of my  favorite targets, the unimaginative rural locals and the unimaginative northern transplants that make up (or at least seem to make up) the population of my home county.

Rough sketch on old-fashioned, actual paper. Clicken to embiggen

With an idea figuratively in hand (the most important and biggest hurdle to clear in getting the cartoon started) I was able to begin sketching out ideas. I’ve pretty much gone completely digital, with my Wacom pressure-sensitive tablet and various software programs that can simulate the look and feel of ink, pencil, watercolor, etc., but I still use a pencil and paper when just roughing out ideas and characters.

sketch layout • click to make bigger

Once I have a general idea where the cartoon (in this case, comic strip, since it will take multiple panels to tell the story) is going to go, I can switch to the computer and (using the Manga Studio software I prefer to work in) decide how many panels it will take and start roughing out the layout and composition of each panel. First though, I need to write the actual dialog of the characters in the comic. This is important to do first, as it not only gives me the direction of what to actually draw in that panel, but depending on how much space the word balloons take up, it limits where and what can be drawn in each panel that will not be obscured by the words.  In this case, and in most cases, since I am dealing with actual local issues and not made up circumstances, I have to research the information to make sure I have it all accurate. The location of the New Belgium brewery was mentioned in the news articles, so that was pretty easy to locate on a map. The location of the Sierra Nevada site in Mills River was much trickier, as it was set in some place called “Ferncliff Industrial Park” which I have never even heard of, much less seen and I have lived in Mills River for most of my life.

type layout • click to see larger

More research for cartoon after idea research • click to see it

The process of locating the location of this purported site was increasingly problematic, as all the news stories and online press releases I could find about it never mentioned a street address or actual location. After much detective work, I was able to ascertain that it must be located somewhere near the French Broad river in Mills River, near the airport and facing Fanning Fields Road. Using Google street view, I was able to, eventually work my way down that road until I found a guesstimate of where it must probably ought to be and now I had the two sites to pinpoint on my cartoon map of the future multi-use, supergreenway path! I also needed to find an accurate map of the route to use in the cartoon for the panel that shows a birds eye/Google Maps view of the route and I needed to be relatively aware of where the Transylvania/Henderson/Buncombe county lines fell in the opening panel. Some reference photos of what the current railroad tracks in the proposed Ecusta trail look like needed to be sourced as well and I was also able to rely on my own experience on them. Finally, some reference photos for the bicycle (can’t get that wrong, or I would hear about it) and I’m ready to proceed. Now, after the script has been written (limited by the space allowed in the panel and the size and shape of the word balloons) and the rough layout pencilled in, the final inking of the comic can begin with the reference sources all pinned down.

comic at the inking stage - click to grow

After all the details have been added in, I can export the Manga Studio file as a PSD layered file and then open that file in Photoshop. Now I can begin the process of adding in all the color that has to meticulously be put in by hand on each item. Luckily, I decided to make the final panel a sepia tone to indicate how backwards and old timey my beloved home county is in the comic. That meant I didn’t have to color in each little thing in that panel at least, but I ended up having to make things various shades of the sepia brown to give them some depth.

colored in strip make it bigger by clicking

Finally, I can send the finished image to the Mountain Xpress. First, however, I have been informed that I must make sure all the blacks in the ink, text, rules, etc. are all in 100% black instead of the CMYK build that Photoshop makes them automatically when I bring it into an RGB PSD file from Manga Studio (if these things mean nothing to you and make your eyes glaze over, imagine how I feel dealing it every week) so I have to find a way to select only those parts of the image and convert them to appear in just the BLACK channel after converting the image from an RGB to a CMYK image, increasing the size of an already large file to email, but it can’t be helped, sorry inbox mail attachment file limits!

finished cartoon for print

Now, I’m ready to mail the file to the MX editor, co-editor, editor when the editor is away, another editor who fills in for that editor and the art department guy. I could be done now, but I have one more chore I have voluntarily burdened myself with: I have to make a special version for the Mountain Xpress web site. You see, the dimensions of the comic I have been given to fit into for the print edition (and the large header that must appear above it each week) leave me with a very wide and narrow, horizontal space to fill. While this fits into the print version of the paper, the web site, in its current columnar layout, does not give much horizontal room for things and that includes the cartoons. Taking my very wide horizontal cartoon and shrinking it to fit into the narrow space of the web site reduces all that detail and text down to an unreadable size online, particularly in anything with more than one, two or at the most three panels. This being a five panel, two row cartoon, I felt I needed to make my usual WEB version of it. So, I had to take the finished, flattened CYMK TIFF 300 dpi print file and change it back to an RGB JPEG 72 dpi web file. Then I had to cut and paste the individual panels in order to get them to stack onto each other (in correct sequential order of course) until they make a vertical cartoon that will more easily fit into the online layout without having to be shrunk down to illegibility.

web version of cartoon

At last, the cartoon has been remade to fit online, and I send it in a second email to the MX editor and the MX webmaster (I send them separately, because in the past, I have sent web versions and print versions together , but found the print versions were being used online anyway and I also have received very stern reprimands from the print art director about “square-shaped comics with the wrong dimensions” that I should know better than to send for print which turned out to be the web version that someone mistakenly sent to the print department) to make sure they go only to those who need them. Then, at last, my cartoon finished for the week and only 40 or so hours spent in thinking of, researching, sketching, roughing, re-researching, writing, lettering, inking, coloring, manipulating, routing and sending my cartoon, I can relax and not think about it again for at least another two days! The $40 I have earned for it will go far, but that is not why I do it. I do it for the knowledge that I am creating something of quality that will be enjoyed by so many readers both in print and online and satisfaction that creating something that touches so many people in such a way that only such hard work and dedication to accurate detail and quality presentation can achieve!

Print version used on MX Facebook page and huge response it garnered.

Oh, did I mention that the online version I worked on and sent to the MX was never used and the web people just somehow tracked down the print version that I only sent to the print people and then converted that to use in a tiny, unreadable image on both the Facebook pages and web site? Did I mention that I mentioned this to them via an email that once again, contained the web version and that they still to this day did not fix it?

PRINT version of cartoon used on the MX web site to the view of hundreds and garnering zeroes of comments.

Did I mention why I bother to spend so much time every week on this cartoon? I’m remember there used to be a reason, but can’t remember what it was now.

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