PETER GROSS chats about the art of THE UNWRITTEN #1
The Vertigo Blog was nice enough to ask me to talk about my art process on The Unwritten, using some art from our soon to be classic issue #1, and when the Vertigo Blog asks for something, I jump to it...
We’re going to look at pages 5, 6, and 7 of The Unwritten #1. In the pages before this we saw a scene from the last Tommy Taylor book (the layouts for that scene are reproduced in the first tpb--out in stores last week and on the NY Times Bestseller list this week!) Then we had a quick cut to a close-up of the last page of the book, being autographed by Tommy Taylor himself. Only, Tommy is Tom now, grown up and weary of his life as the namesake for a famous series of books...
This page was our first shot of Tom Taylor, the adult version of the fictional Tommy Taylor. But of equal importance to what he looks like is his situation in life-so I cut part of the line in panel 1 and moved the remaining dialogue to the previous page so this page starts with a big establishing shot that makes a great transition from fantasy world in the first scene. We enter the real life of Tom Taylor--reluctant guest of honor at a huge TommyCon event.
Then I took Tom’s last line in script panel 2 and broke it off into the first close-up of Tom. I wanted that first reveal of him to focus on that really important defining line of dialogue about him and his father, Wilson Taylor.
Mike and I worked really hard in the first Tom scene to really establish the status quo of Tom Taylor’s life and I think we did a great job of having almost every line give you some great background on the character. (Can you tell I care as much about the story and character bits as I do about the actual art--which is what I’m supposed to be talking about here). But actually, I feel like the story is king and the art should serve that--which is probably the reason that Vertigo has kept me busy all these years and you haven’t seen me on a superhero book in a long time...
I’m not sure if I should mention that one of those two authors casting aspersions on Tom has appeared again later in the series and I don’t think anyone has noted the connection. But it shows you how Mike’s been planning things from the start.
Back to the art, I just want to say a bit about composition. (This is something that was pointed out to me by Jim Shooter of all people, at a Con in Chicago long ago when I was trying to break into the business. Frank Miller even joined in for a bit! Shooter had someone find a copy of an old Jack Kirby story featurig the Human Torch and Captain America, and he went through it a panel at a time explaining to me what Kirby was doing in the composition. The bit where Frank Miller joined in was because he had gotten the same lecture from Shooter at an early point in his career!
What I learned, and still practice on every page today is that the flow on the page from panel to panel is very important and you almost need to guide the reader through a page visually even when it’s pretty self evident where to go.
On this page, in panel 1 the line of the tables leads your eye to panel 2--and in case you don’t get that, the line of the crowd guides you back into the second tier of panels. In panel 2, Tom hands the book off into panel 3. In panel 3 the perspective of the author’s heads leads you to panel 4. In panel 4, Tom leans in to complete that angle and he still faces to the right where we’ve already been coached to go to next. In panel 5 the line of the tables leads you back into the lower tier but in case you want to go too far to the lower left, Tom stands straight up with an arc to his back that leads you straight below to the point between the two writers for the ending beat on the page.
All that sounds incredibly nit-picky but it does all apply. It’s hard to do fluidly at first but one good way to check if your layouts flow correctly is to flip any given panel over, either on the computer, or with tracing paper--and you’ll instantly see how clunky the page gets when the flow is counterproductive. Thanks, Jim Shooter, for the secret of my success!
The most memorable thing on this page for me is that I really wanted to do a visual gag where we see somehere at TommyCon that someone was selling copies of a cel phone video of Tom losing his virginity years before. Sadly, we never had the space to get it across ut it does make it’s appearance in the background a the polaroid photo snapped for a fan. Mike changed the XXX to “Tommy’s Magic Horn” in the final. There was a story point to it all--the idea being that everything in Tom’s adolescence had been subject to his fame, even his presumably embarrassing first time--living on for posterity! I’m going to get that bit back in a story sometime (and fully explained)--I promise!
For me the layout is the hard part of the job, even if it’s not the most time consuming. I don’t usually put the lettering in by hand because it takes almost as much time as doing the layout. But with this book I find it’s really important that I see that the dialogue is working with the art. It’s also really hard for me to ink Mike Carey scripted pages without the lettering roughed in because he writes a lot of nuanced dialogue. And if I don’t have the words right there I might get the expression a bit off. We used to ink pages after the lettering was in but after digital lettering came about we had to ink without letters. On Lucifer I was always grabbing the script and finding the line as I was inking and that gets really annoying and time consuming. So on Unwritten I put it in rough so I can read it.
Technically, I do my layouts on print size paper with pencil and marker. I do some sketching on the script as I’m reading it multiple times to get an overall feel for the issue. and I usually come up with a rough idea of the panel layout and what’s going on in them.
These had a bit more pencil than I generally use because I wasn’t set on what characters looked like yet. As I get farther into the series I’ll use more marker. I work at printed size so I can get a feel of how things will look in the actual comic. I have a tendency to put in too much detail if I work big and that really doesn’t make the pages work better.
When the layouts are done I scan them and send them to Mike and our editor, Pornsak Pichetshote for their ok.
After they’re approved we digitally clean the art then print the pages out in non-photo blue ink on the approximately 11”X17” art boards that DC provides.
The big dirty secret of comic artists is that we use assistants to help with the background inks, filling in blacks, and doing the digital clean-up. My assistant on Unwritten is Barb Guttman and it’s nice to have a chance to give her credit for the great job she does!
I ink the pages with brushes, fountain pens, and markers. You wouldn’t believe the trials I’ve gone through looking for the right ink over the years. I get totally obsessed about finding the right inking tools, and invariably, once you find something perfect, they quit making it. So when I do find something great I tend to buy a big batch of it. I recently found a great ink from Japan that I couldn’t get here in the States so I bought $300 worth from a supplier in Singapore. It’s the only waterproof fountain pen ink that doesn’t feather on the DC bristol board. (Email me if you know another one!)
I hope it ages well because I have enough for years...
The inking stage takes longer because my “pencils” are pretty minimal and like other artists who ink there own stuff, I tend to do a lot of the drawing straight with ink (penciling on my here and there as I go to tighten things up. You can see how everything is there in the layouts but I don’t think I’ll ever be an artist that they can turn the pencils into digital inks!
Barb did a great job on the TommyCon posters and all the little crowd running around and the booths. Like I said, I’d never get a page done on time without help.
You can also see in the final product how much Todd Klein adds with the letters and Chris Chuckry with the colors. Early on I was considering having my wife Jeanne McGee color the book in watercolor in a technique we developed for a book called Chosen that I did with Mark Millar (now reprinted as American Jesus). and this is one of the pages we did test samples for. We decided Chris had the right look for the real world pages and we decided to use Jeanne’s watercolors for the Tommy world and other fictional pages (in case you ever wondered why there’s two names credited for colors).
The TommyCon panel talk! I used all my Con experience to draw this page. And the first Con talk I did after completing it was sort of an eerie experience. I felt like I was Tom up there on the stage looking out at the crowd.
Story-wise, I changed a few beats from the script. In panel 1 you can see I was undecided whether to go with a long shot of the hall, or straight to a closer shot of Tom. We picked the long shot. In panel 4 we cut Tom’s line.
In panel 5 I had a rare disagreement with Mike.
I have this manipulative technique where I leave off Mike’s lines from my hand lettered layout if I’m not sure about them. Or I rearrange it however I want, or even write a new line. My thinking is that Mike and Pornsak will read my version and get it in their head before they remember the original version. It works pretty well on Pornsak, but it never works with Mike. He remembers every damn one of his lines. But it does serve to open the discussion and we get incredibly nit picky about the purpose of every line.
You can see the details if you compare script to layout to final page but the gist of it was that I wanted Tom to repeat the question from panel 4 in panel 5 and let it hang there with a pregnant pause. (I left of the question in panel 4 because I was hoping Mike would edit it, which he did do).
But I really wanted that question to hang in panel--like the beginning of an angry response, or like Tom couldn’t believe someone would ask the question. Mike didn’t agree but he gave in enough that he kept my line but he added what was the second part of the fan’s original question as a rejoinder/clarification. I think it was good solution but I still miss that hanging moment...
The only other change on the page was to split script panel 5 into art panels 6 and 7 to create a more fidgety beat for Tom as he realizes he’s been a bit too honest.
And that’s Lizzie Hexam in panel 2, getting ready to confront Tom and send his life to pieces on the following pages.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how we draw The Unwritten!
I forgot to add a bit about Tom’s look. Tom has a penchant for bowling shirts, he grows his sideburns out in an attempt to look older than Tommy Taylor. And despite his best attempts, his hair tends to fall into 3 clumps in his bangs, just like little Tommy Taylor in the books--especially when the weirdness starts to happen and the adrenaline flows!