Working Inside The Box

This is a reworking of the talk that I gave at the Digital Comics Symposium at University of Hertfordshire, UK on 14 October 2015. Big thanks to Daniel Merlin Goodbrey for hosting, to the Electricomics team, and everyone else who contributed to a great day out.

The theme of the talk was constraints and creativity, based on my own observations of using a highly digital workflow to create traditional page-based comics.

When talking about digital comics, we often state that constraints have been removed – we can now animate, use sound, make “pages” as big as we like or abandon the “page” completely, add non-linear storytelling structures (even generate the pathways dynamically), etc. The sense of freedom can be dizzying.

Technology, Economy, Time

I gave an overview of the constraints facing print-based comics, based on the technology available to them, and how these were worked with (note “with”, not “against”) creatively. Constraints shape the creative process, from the 4 colour CMYK printing process helping to shape the storytelling, from brightly coloured superheroes with recognisable colour signatures to the long-held prejudice that colour comic art was superior to black & white because of the higher physical production costs.

Technology exists as one point of a triangle along with time and money, of course. Time and money are huge constraints in comics, and in any creative activity. Technology is often not enabling new approaches per se, but rather enabling them to be done in a quicker, or more cost-effective way. And, regardless of the impact of technology, creatives often expend considerable effort figuring out how to do things quickly or cheaply (usually because the alternative is not to do them at all). I’m into creating comics primarily in order to tell stories.

Capturing nuances of facial expression and gesture, which requires considerable artistic talent, is a big part of storytelling, but that’s the extent of my interest in visually recording the human form. I can draw passably well, and capture a reasonable likeness repeatedly, but for me, the use of digital photography and photo-manipulation were adopted as a technology that let me get on quicker, and dispense with a lot of the drudge-work of drawing. Initially at least – where I’ve ended up by adopting those techniques isn’t where I expected to be, as you’ll see.

There’s a whole “science” of productivity and efficiency, starting with the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor. His Time & Motion studies broke down repetitive actions into their constituent parts, and tweaked them individually. Taylorism in it’s pure form is no longer a thing (it survived 40 years, at most, from 1890 – 1930’s), but his legacy survives.

I find myself timing and measuring my actions when making comics. I know how many pages I can turn out a month, how long it takes to do a single drawing in a particular style, how many panels I can produce in an evening, and so on. And, on the whole, I find that recording and measurement rather irksome to my creative process. A big part of me kicks against these economically-imposed constraints.

My main assertion here is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Constraints and creativity aren’t enemies, and this is the case in at least two ways.

Virtuous Circles

The first one is rather prosaic. My standard workflow, with a given technique, is to do it manually, tweak and refine the process, and then, when I’m happy with it, commit it to code as a plugin. (I use GIMP, and write my scripts in Python. If you use Photoshop as your tool of choice, that can be automated using Javascript in a similar way.) Once a technique is scripted up in this way, I can apply it more effortlessly, and quicker, without having to let the setup stages get in the way of my creativity. Doing an appropriate amount of Taylorist measurement and reflection helps me fly further.

Self-Imposed Boxes

The second synergy between constraints and creativity goes deeper. Looking across a lot of stories that I like, I find that the artists involved often voluntarily adopt constraints. Here are a few, picked from comics, film, prose, etc. – I try hard not to restrict my comic making influences to just other comic creators. So, a few examples.

David Mazzuchelli’s “Asterios Polyp” uses the CMYK printing process in a very deliberate way, assigning different colour schemes (and line styles) to each character – Asterios is blue, angular and geometric, whereas his partner Hana is magenta, and defined by softer, more blurry-edged cross-hatching.

In Ray Fawkes’ powerful graphic novel “One Soul”, 18 different life stories, from different locations through time and geography, have their life stories told. Fawkes sticks to a 3×3 panel grid throughout, with each life allocated a particular place in the double-page spread. The stories build up alongside one another, and the page gradually goes dark as the characters die.

In Peter Greenaway’s film “Drowning By Numbers”, the numbers 1 to 100 appear, in order, somewhere in the elaborate sets. Completely incidental to the (rather bizarre) main plot of the film, it’s possible to watch the film as a sort of arthouse “Where’s Wally”, follow the story, or do both.

In Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee & Cigarettes”, the entire film is made up of short vignettes in which assorted characters meet up to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. The unusual combinations of famous actors ad musicians playing warped versions of themselves, and repeated motifs hold things together in a strange way. (both Tom Waits and GZA from Wu Tang Clan are, in their semi-fictional forms, skilled medical doctors as well as musicians, for example.)

In Jon Sladek’s short story “A Game of Jump”, a tale of murder, lust, betrayal and insanity is told using only the 700 words defined in an old Ladybird dictionary for children, to startling effect. Randall Munroe of XKCD performs a similar trick with the diagrammatic “Up-goer 5”, describing the technical functions o the Apollo 5 rocket using a very limited vocabulary.

Richard McGuire’s “Here” shows the same scene from a fixed viewpoint, spanning thousands of years of history, and interleaving the different time periods within floating “windows” to build up a historical tapestry of a particular room in a house. (FWIW, I disagree with the second review entirely, I don’t see anything in the book that can be read as an urgent ecological fable. It’s a mirror, I think the reviewer may have seen her own very valid concerns reflected back at her.)

Poetry is full of formal constraints – especially rhyming poetry, in t’s multiple forms: sestinas, habbies, quatrains, sonnets, haikus and limericks. (Yep, limericks. Poetry might be sen as a rather serious business, but sticking to a rigid set of constraints can be fun too.)


These are all what I’d call “formalist” constraints (and I’d describe my own approach as very “formalist”) – let me explain what I mean by that. Here’s the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition:

Full Definition of FORMALISM. 1. : the practice or the doctrine of strict adherence to prescribed or external forms (as in religion or art); also : an instance of this. 2. : marked attention to arrangement, style, or artistic means (as in art or literature) usually with corresponding de-emphasis of content.

Often, I’ll get the starting point for an idea from some specific external form, rather than from a specific story.

“Tell an entire life story in one page” (I ran this as a challenge on the Millarworld forums several years ago, and had a huge and varied response)
“Tell a story using cut-ups of paintings by a famous (out of copyright) painter”
“Divide each page horizontally, and tell two parallel stories along the top and bottom, which bounce off each other in interesting ways”
“Tell a story composed of several interwoven narratives on a broad topic (e.g. ‘problems’) coming up with the topic first and writing the stories to fit afterwards”

The definition has a point, that a formalist approach can overlook content, and there are plenty of formalist exercises out there that end up rather dry and shrivelled, and other online definitions are rather more damning of formalism in this regard. I try not to fall into this trap – I do want to tell meaningful stories too – it’s just a matter of pedalling a little bit harder in the right places. (My success rate’s probably better than 50%, if I’m honest. Sometimes the content’s played second fiddle to the form.)

Technology & Improvisation

This was a talk delivered at a symposium on digital comics, so I wanted to round off by coming back to digital technology, and the initial assertion that it had an impact on the non-creative constraints of the time & money variety. In my own work, this was the biggest initial draw of technology for me, as I said.

Experience has proven otherwise, however. Taking photos of people as a starting point has influenced my work in quite different ways.

  • Working with screen-caps from youtube etc. (as I did initially, to try the techniques out), I have no control over the movements/gestures of the people, so made up stories around the available images.
  • Working with other real-live people, who were investing their time for free (notably my collaborators at Kendal Community Theatre), it didn’t feel right to turn up with complete scripts and work through them, but to work with them on the day, and create stories from that.
  • Much of the video that I recorded was of people talking (there’s also a fair bit of action/dramatic conflict), so I gravitated towards a “talking heads” style.
  • Having “talking heads” on the page helped me to come up with the idea of split pages as a way of introducing more visual elements into the story.

I’ve developed a style here that’s quite different from most comics I’ve seen, and one with a lot of potential and variety, that I feel I could spend at least a couple more years exploring.

I’m therefore tempted to conclude that the boundary between practical and creative constraints is somewhat artificial, or at least, we have a degree of choice in how we view the constraints under which we work, and turn them to our advantage.

A short video demonstrating my current workflow for turning photos into comic art, at high speed, can be found here.

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