Comics and Cartoons Week
Dedasaur is a very accomplished comics creator, with several long-term projects -- "The Pirate Balthasar," "The Flower and the Nose," and "The Mark of Cain," to name a few! -- in the works. She uses both traditional and digital media in her comics, so she'll be talking a little bit about that today. Did I mention her drop-dead gorgeous art style? (Seriously, go check out her comics.)
You create comics with both digital and traditional media. Tell us a little about your work. How did you get into comics?
Dedasaur: Gather around children, Granny Deda has a story to tell you, get the popcorn.
I did not quite "get into comics," I sort of returned to it, I think. When I was a kid, comics were my favorite thing, I learned to read when I was 3 thanks to comics. Italy has an enormous tradition of comics and educational comics and art in general and we have had anime since the late 60s/early 70s.
Most of us draw. I used to draw too, always making little stories. When I was 12, I made a comic for the church’s magazine about the Crusades and Saint Francis of Assisi. When I was a teen, I used to make a lot of comics and then pass them to the kids I was babysitting. With time, my interest shifted towards animation and I started making storyboards and scripts instead of comics. I went on to study to become a storyboard artist and worked in the animation industry as a storyboard artist for a while, then my arm started giving me problems and I had to retire and do something else. I moved to design and other things and completely forgot about my passion for years, though I kept reading a ton of comics from all over the world. Until I met one of the kids I used to babysit, all grown up, and he gave me the scolding of a lifetime: "How could you stop making comics? You always wanted to tell stories!" It hit me really hard. To top it off, my favorite teacher from university died a few months later and left me with the bitter taste of never having gotten around to show her something I was proud of : "I made this!"
When I was teaching at the European Institute of Design, I started commuting a lot. I got a cheap sketchbook from Ikea (not good for drawing) and I started scribbling storyboards and layout pages for "The Pirate Balthasar" with ballpoint pens. It was faster than writing a script, it was visual, it was closer to the story department way of working, and I filled the sketchbook in a few months. I then started working as a script doctor on my own storyboards, moving pages around, fixing scenes, removing some, adding others. "The Pirate Balthasar" was a story that had been with me for more than 20 years, I felt I finally got it.
In December 2009, my grandmother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I was stranded without internet and barely any TV with her sister, my Great-auntie Grazia for 55 days, to take care of her while my mom and her sister took care of my grandmother at the hospital. She would watch TV at night, doing her own commentary on the show and it was hilarious; she is my inspiration for the character Cassandra, so that's when I started cleaning up my storyboard (I still could not draw much) and putting them in Photoshop trying to figure out a way to make them clear.
From Chapter 2 onward, I decided I had to overcome my hand issue and I started drawing more and more until I was able to draw again and got rid of the cast. On Jan. 21st, my mom's birthday, I released the first chapter of "The Pirate Balthasar," all in one go, 45 pages. From then, I navigated through websites, releases, and other things until I came to a format that was daily and now it's twice a week because I have other series (but mostly because "The Forgotten Muse" took me two years to finish and get published, otherwise I could do daily for all the series).
In a digital age, why traditional media still? What would you say are the strengths of traditional media in comics?
Dedasaur: Because there is no difference between the two, but one is the foundation of the other. When you master traditional, you transfer the knowledge into digital. When you master digital, they become the same thing: they take the same amount of time, go through the same process, and they are just media. The medium is a part of the style but not necessarily the style; the style stays there no matter what media you use, but it is something that has to be most suitable to the story and the style. I could have done "The Flower and the Nose" digitally, in fact there are a few bits and pages that were done with different media (and even digitally) because I did not have Copics with me or I ran out of ink. I drew "The Flower and the Nose" traditionally because I needed old/yellow pages, I needed the ink to have natural blotted lines and mistakes and because Copics are bright and pigmented and come pre-mixed, but most of all because it was portable. I could take the sketchbook and markers and ink anywhere, like on vacation, and work on it without needing electricity. I go to places with no electricity and no internet at times to rest. I do not bring the other comics on vacation, I create buffer pages.
For the yellow pages aged naturally in the Singapore weather, I went and bought a stock of sketchbooks that were on sale because the pages were stained and yellow and I danced around the store when I found them, saying “I will use these.” When I ran out, I was desperate; lucky for me, paper does not last in its whiteness in Singapore, so there was another sale. One sketchbook I had to age myself for five years. There’s a chapter that does not look as “antique.”
The strength of traditional media is that you learn how materials behave. With paint and pigment, you run into lucky accidents; they are alive, they bleed, they mix and you discover stuff. The paper behaves differently, too. Traditional media is about discoveries, experimenting, acquiring knowledge. This knowledge you can then transfer into digital.
If you cannot make your digital work look like traditional and vice versa, instead of owning the medium, the medium owns you. You do not pick a medium for convenience – although sometimes I tell clients “let me do this digitally, it’s faster,” the truth is it’s just slightly cheaper or I haven’t had time to go to the store and buy paper, so I am out of supplies – you use it because the story demands a certain style.
Fundamentally, the best thing about working in traditional media is that you make a ton of mistakes that you cannot undo; this forces you to start over, and that’s the fastest way of learning. I haven’t owned an eraser in 20 years. I jokingly tell my students “erasers are regrets trapped in a tiny PVC cube”. I ask them not to use the eraser tool in digital media, either; I always tell them, “throw a new layer over it and restart.” The only time they can use eraser is if they use it to draw (carve negative space, inside the negative shapes). Erasers can be drawing tools, too.
You learn faster if you fail a lot.
What do you think are the strengths of digital media?
Dedasaur: The digital imaging aspects of it. Drawing, coloring, texturing. You can do it anywhere and anyhow but there are certain elements of digital imaging software that incorporate the fact they were meant for photography. So suddenly, you shift from color theory for pigment to color theory for light. There are things like multiply and overlay which, combined together, give you a realistic sense of switching the lights on and off in a scene, giving you that sense of ambient occlusion that calculate how exposed each point in a scene is to ambient lighting.
The other thing I like about digital Imaging is of course the possibility of deforming, liquifying, cutting and pasting and transforming things around, so that you can start with a drawing that has good gesture and OK proportions and you can fix the proportions, liquify the pose and have a more powerful stance and then throw a new layer on top and clean up, then ink. I like also the fact that the software is set like what traditional media would do -- for instance, layers. I used to go through stacks and stacks of tracing paper. Layers function the same way.
You get to retain your thinking process while adding your film/photography knowledge. It’s excellent.
What advice would you give to people who want to start making comics but think they don’t have the right materials or programs for it?
Dedasaur: You don’t need the "right" programs or materials, you just need your imagination, a story and time to make it happen. It is very important to develop good habits and grit. Sometimes our “I wish I were” are just forms of procrastination we use to boycott ourselves. I am not sure we can label it low self-esteem or laziness; other people would call it that, but I call it fear of happiness. The truth is: things only happen because we just sit down and do it, without thinking too much about it. See, overthinking is the only real obstacle to making our life turn around. You gotta stop thinking you do not deserve happiness and just work towards what makes you happy. If you really love something, you just find a way.
I work, sometimes, even 11 hours per day. My normal working hours are usually 8 hours per day but I like my job, too. The kids, the time I give them, it’s time well spent. I go home at 6 p.m., draw until 10:30 p.m., go to bed and fall asleep while reading. I wake up a 5 a.m., draw some more, do lettering, post a page, have breakfast, go to work. I have been doing this for 10 years, it’s not dedication, it’s a habit. You start doing something and you keep at it until it is not a duty anymore but second nature.
Also, the most powerful tool in the world is in your hand: it’s your phone. Frankly, in this day and age, you can make the most amazing things with apps. You do not need much, you can start with photographs. I do not own a phone, per se, meaning it only works with wi-fi. When I am out, I am isolated; I draw or write on the train and I look around where all sort of rubbish would inspire in me a joke or an idea. I snap a picture, I annotate in my notebook, I go home and draw.
The most powerful tool in the world is the way you perceive your phone as something more. You just have to think of it not as a phone: it's a way to communicate, get distracted, procrastinate, play, etc. You have to see it as a tool. It’s way more powerful than whatever computer I was using in school to learn to do animation and digital imaging. There are portable free versions of Adobe Sketch, Blender (for 3D) and so on.
Although it’s true that proper media give you better results, it is also true that all you need to do is start somehow and work your way up.
I started drawing comics on ruled paper, hahaha, when I was a kid, using ballpoint pens. All of them freebies given by insurance companies to my mom; who the heck could afford a drawing album and pencils outside of school? The end result doesn’t matter, all that matters is that you start and hop onto a learning curve and level up with time and patience.
That said, what kind of traditional media tools or digital applications do you tend to use the most?
Dedasaur: It depends where I am and what I am doing. On the go, train, zoo, etc., I tend to sketch life drawings with a pen (G7, Micron pen, gel pen, fountain pen. I quit ballpoint years ago because it’s too easy, it feels like graphite and you can build up. You have to be hard on yourself to get better T_T ballpoint was not being a true friend to me).
I like to bring watercolor with me when I go on vacation because I prefer drawing the places I go to rather than taking pictures. I still do take pictures, but mostly for Bau’s Instagram (Bau is my rubber/toy lizard). My parents and my niece are patient with me and let me draw. My sister is NOT! (and I even named characters after her).
At home, I use acrylic inks, China ink, Copic markers, acrylics, watercolor, colored pencils and I mix them up. I love to paint on coasters while I wait for my food to be delivered at cafes.
Digitally speaking, I use Adobe Sketch on iPad. It’s connected to my Photoshop so I can send PSD files over, and I use Illustrator, too (I love Illustrator. Illustrator is God, it just doesn’t know it).
You have a very recognizable style, but you change it a bit depending on the comic. How is this part of your storytelling technique?
Dedasaur: I think I tend to follow what the story requires. Some stories are happy and can be colourful, the sad ones should be quadrichromatic at best. Some require more composure or looseness, levity or gravity, and the genre matters. I think what dictates the style is the narrative compromise. If the story is surreal, the style has to be surreal, too. If the story is epic, the style needs to be epic. Color follows along. Colors impact emotion: if it’s purple, somebody is going to die; if it’s blue, everything is serene and passive; if it’s yellow, it’s a spiritual awakening; if it’s red, depending on the shades, it’s passion or murder. Thinking about it, though, it is not so much style as it is rendition. The style is pretty much still me, with my pinky up, the grins and turtle facing moment, hahaha, but the rendering can be painterly, lineless, inked properly, sketchy, cleaned up, textures, flat. In a way, I also use this choice to experiment a lot. Variety is important for a commercial artist.
Do you have advice for people who want to develop their own style?
Dedasaur: Strengthen your fundamentals, the style grows with you. You may like to draw manga in your early 20s and then shift to hyper-realism in 10 years' time (good to try the 10 years challenge), so getting a style it is not as important as having strong fundamentals. The truth is: if you can draw realistic, you can draw anything. At one point realistic becomes easier than design, it’s auto-pilot knowledge. Designing with shapes is harder; you have to switch your mind on, put on a thinking cap.
Sometimes I see beautifully rendered painting on terrible drawings, with the anatomy all over the place, no feet, hands missing phalanges, stiff or sideways necks, broken shoulder girdles and female breasts that defy gravity more than Elphaba on her broomstick! And it’s not the style. You can tell the style from mistakes, there is a thought process behind it that is recognizable to the trained eye. Fundamentally, art is not just interpretation, it’s a language: it has grammar and lexicon. You learn the rules and break them, right? So when people break them, they are still following another set of rules, design rules. You can tell, the grammar is still there! It’s like listening to Jar Jar Binks talk or Yoda: you still understand what they are saying because there is a speech pattern, designed so they don’t jumble up words in an intelligible way.
Anyways, I also see decent anatomy, beautifully textured things and clothing on very generic faces (you know, the hentai ones where the mouth is round and open only missing the drool?) and it’s as if Michelangelo put an emoticon face on David, which he didn’t, he gave him heart-shaped pupils instead, just so that his gaze would be more piercing as the light hit the eyes. It's personal taste but I like to see distinct/recognizable facial features, it is fun (… says the person who has quintuplets, a strong Balthasar genetic pool and miniature Fins in her stories. But you can tell Cat from Martin and Foxy from Kane, right? That’s what I mean. Ha ha. No LEGO effect).
So, don’t worry about style yet. Style will come and go. It will change as you grow up, as your taste changes and gets refined, or as you start looking at age-appropriate content and so on. I see it happen all the time; I have been teaching long enough to see my students grow old enough to complain about “these youth and their whatever whatever they are watching! In my days…” and regret liking certain things, saying “What was I thinking?” Hahaha, going from manga to Cartoon Network style in a few years. It’s evolution at its best. The quest for identity, the best thing in life for an artist, you should savor it.
Style takes time and requires patience, but fundamentals are more important. To be able to draw a character in perspective, to be able to place them in an environment because they do not exist in an empty space but need context, to be able to work on their emotions and gestures, locking the knees properly, shifting the weight in a good, solid contrapposto, to be able to render different materials so that the skin, the armour, the clothes, the leather, the wood don’t just all look like plastic, you need practice.
Practice practice practice. Draw hands every day, draw from life and expand your visual library. Draw everything that drives you nuts because it’s hard, until you tackle it. Read. A lot. Of everything.
What inspires you in your comics making? Do you have any books or webcomics you’d recommend for us to check out?
Dedasaur: It’s a question I get a lot. Like everybody, I get inspired by the things I like, by the things around me, by situations, people, books. I read a lot -- essays, history books, fiction. I am inspired by very old stuff because when I was growing up, TV had no bias on what was to be shown; you could watch a movie that was released 1 year before or 40 years before, and maybe the old one was even better than the new one.
I like black and white movies, I like the Opera, theater (I’m a sucker for Shakespeare), my first studies were at a university that specialized in dramatic arts, art, music and spectacles. I’m a history buff and like very unique artists: Tezuka, Lorenzo Lotto, Frank Capra, the old Disney, Monty Python, Dr. Who, Star Trek and Star Wars, Asimov, Puccini, Chopin and Sibelius. I grew up surrounded by the works of the masters of Renaissance and Baroque, by ancient history, but also I was raised on comics by Toppi, Herge, Alex Raymond, Uderzo and Goscinny, tons of manga, Will Eisner.
Like everybody, I am inspired by the things I find interesting and I think are worth keeping alive and transfer onto the next generation. They are just not very common things.
What would I recommend? Classic literature to understand archetypes. Who is the mother of Sci-fi? When was the horror genre born? Who invented the romantic comedy? How did man vs. destiny change from its original meaning to today’s modern concept?
Cyril Pedrosa and Enrique Fernandez are my favorite artists and storytellers. I recommend you read the comics that made a history : "A Pact with God" (anything by Will Eisner really, I love "The Spirit"), "Sandman," "The Three Adolf and MW" (anything by Tezuka, he is the god of manga), read "Maus" by Art Spiegelman (it won a Pulitzer Prize), comic strips older than Peanuts even (like Buster Brown, Little Nemo, Crazy Kat). Read the history and evolution of comics. If you love something, you should know everything about it. You would do the same for a person you are about to marry -- you would want to know everything about them. Why shouldn’t you do it for the love of your life?