Saurav Mohapatra - comic book writer

author, artist and bona fide geek

Month: July 2010

SDCC 2010 – David Lloyd and Kickback


DAVID LLOYD at the DC/VERTIGO Booth at SDCC 2010

I’m finally back from San Diego Comic-con International (SDCC) 2010 and one of the personal high points of this year was meeting David Lloyd (co-creator/artist of V FOR VENDETTA). I was lucky enough to get him to do a sketch for me. Most people in line were asking for V FOR VENDETTA sketches, but I’m a big fan of his graphic novel KICKBACK (that he wrote and illustrated). It blends a hard-boiled noir tale about a corrupt cop with elements of surrealism. KICKBACK had a big influence on my own work in MUMBAI CONFIDENTIAL.

So I requested him to draw a quick approximation of the KICKBACK cover. I also mentioned the fact that I loved KICKBACK and showed him some pages of Vivek’s work on Mumbai Confidential. We had a short conversation about the themes of Corruption and why human beings do bad things. We exchanged e-mail addresses and I shall be writing to him soon to hopefully continue that discussion.


David Lloyd’s sketch from SDCC 2010


KICKBACK Cover

You can purchase KICKBACK at Amazon. Last I checked it was a full color 96 page hardcover going for $10.00. It’s a steal at that price. :)

Tales from SDCC (Part 2) – Wonderful Willow Wilson and Magnificent M.K. Perker a.k.a My Life as a DC/Vertigo comic book character

Another day, another Tale from SDCC. :) As I mentioned in my previous post about Phil Hester at SDCC ’06, I have some wonderful memories of the convention in the three years I’ve been there. As I get ready to attend my 4th straight year, here’s something that actually made me feel pretty special.

One day while we were chatting over IM, G. Willow Wilson (CAIRO, AIR, BUTTERFLY MOSQUE) fired off (what looked to me) an “unusual” query.

“Is Saurav a common Indian name?”

Hmm, considering I knew about 8 Saurav’s (different spellings included) during my school days and about 30 odd during college, my answer was the obvious.

“It’s common enough.”

I didn’t think much of it. Willow had then just released the critically acclaimed “CAIRO” with DC/Vertigo (with artist M.K. Perker) and was penning a (as of then) “secret project” (also to be drawn by MK) that went on to become the Eisner nominated ongoing series “AIR”. I read the first few issues of AIR and loved it. But that particular year was an “interesting” one for me not the least because I was slowly plunging into the wonderful world of fatherhood. Reading comics kind of percolates down to the bottom of the TODO list, superseded by more mundane tasks like changing diapers, midnight feedings and reading daycare brochures.

So fast forward to SDCC ’09. Willow is always a pleasure to chat with and She also did give me a most wonderful foreword for the DEVI vol 4 TPB too. Thus, I make it a point to swing by the DC/Vertigo booth at least once a day when she is signing to say “hi”.

So now wiser after my Phil Hester experience of SDCC ’06, I arrive at the DC/Vertigo booth armed with my sketchbook and as luck would have it MK was doing free sketches. I had never met MK before personally (though I’m a big fan of his work including the OGN “INSOMNIA CAFE” that he wrote and drew). So as Willow was doing the intro, she said something that blew my mind away.

Willow: Saurav, meet MK. MK, Saurav
MK: Ah, How do you spell your name?
Willow: Hey, you should know. Saurav is a character in AIR.

Wow! What? Did I hear that right?

Turns out, the reason Willow asked me if my first name was common enough earlier, was to include it in a line of dialogue where she needed an Indian first name. Heh, she had made me immortal, an eisner nominated DC/Vertigo comic book character no less. :P Here’s the panel in question.


click on the image for the full page scan

Heh, as I held my gaping jaw in place, MK then proceeded to draw me a sketch of Blythe from AIR (pictured below), with a nudge nudge wink wink reference to my fleeting fame as an off panel character.

So, thanks Willow and MK for making SDCC ’09 a special one and once again, thanks for the coolest thing ever. :)

As an aside, guess what’s the first thing I did when I came back home? Scoured my copy of AIR vol 1 TPB, to find the exact page where my name was mentioned, of course.

Tales from SDCC – Fantastic Phil Hester :)

Ah, it’s that time of the year again — San Diego Comic Con International (or SDCC as we like to call it) is upon us again. :) First time I attended SDCC was in 2007 and have gone back there every year since. It is an amazing experience — both as a fan and a creator. For the first two years my routine used to be simple — get in the convention center, locate the Virgin Comics booth, stash my bag there and then just walk around. Of course, there were the previously planned meet and greets interspersed through out the day, but what I enjoy most about SDCC is just walking around. It is still just as wonderful as it was the first time.

Now-a-days, I carry a small leather bound sketchbook with me, in case I meet an artist who’d draw me a quick sketch. ‘Twasn’t always so. The reason I carry the notebook is the Supercallifragilistically Fantastic PHIL HESTER (Firebreather, Green Arrow, Swamp Thing, Anchor, Darkness). So there I was walking around and suddenly I realize I’ve actually cut across a line of people waiting for Phil at the Top Cow booth. I swear I didn’t see the booth, I was just ever so over-awed by the whole goddamn shebang that was SDCC 2006.

Phil looks at me and says “Well?”

I’m dually flustered here from the glares of the people in line and trying to think of an appropriate response to Phil’s query. I think I muttered a meek “Hi”. Suddenly Phil burst into that 10000 megawatt avuncular smile of his and asked “Hi, I’m Phil. Want a sketch? It’s free.”

Of course I wanted a sketch. Maybe cosmic forces guided my footsteps to that Top Cow booth, just so that I could get a sketch. (Or I think I was there looking for Ron Marz, don’t remember what exactly). But at that point in time, I had no idea who Phil Hester was. I mean I didn’t know that I had already read his stuff — Green Arrow mostly. The swamped mind just didn’t make the connection (To the tune of “ah, you’re THAT Phil Hester”). But, here wasa bona fide comic book creator offering to draw me (a mook from India at his first comic-con ever) a free sketch and I’d be damned if I turned that down. I nodded vigorously.

Phil then asked “So… got a notebook?”

Ouch! I hadn’t planned on getting sketches, so (you can see where this is going, can’t you?) I didn’t have a sketchbook handy. But by providence, I had a ruled notebook that I use for jotting down notes (audio recorders don’t work so well in the SDCC din). I promptly turned that over to Phil. He gave me an amused smile and asked “So, what should I draw?”

I decided to play it safe and pretend I didn’t hear the question, lest my “coolness” be punctured. I mean, how do you tell this generous person that you have no idea what his body of work is?

Phil must’ve understood. “Well, I’ll tell you what, I’ll just name stuff I’ve done and you tell me what you want. I have drawn Green Arrow, Swamp Thing…”

Swamp Thing! Yeah, I knew that name.

“Swamp Thing, please.”

10 minutes later (a really sweet 10 minutes of watching Phil draw), I was the proud owner of an original Phil Hester Swamp Thing sketch (pictured below). As you can see, it’s a true work of art, a masterful drawing that I’ll cherish for a long long time.

But there’s something else I’ll cherish much more. When I was a kid, my father always used to tell me that the true measure of a man is how he behaves with people he doesn’t HAVE to be nice to. I mean, if someone writes your paycheck or can get you a deal on a new car, you’ve got to be nice to them out of necessity. But complete strangers, what your default behavior is to them tells of how sound your basic nature/value system is. I stood there for some time, watching Phil courteously respond to person after person as they walked up to him and he drew them sketches. He laughed and he spoke with them — a true gentleman. I realized I had just NOT ONLY seen a great artist at work, but a truly remarkable human being.

Thanks Phil — for the sketch and for being a wonderful person.

regards
Saurav

[CRAFT] Gridlocked – using grids effectively in comics (a NINE PANEL GRID column)

Even if you are a casual comic reader, it is not very hard to notice that there are two types of layouts that a comic page can have. One is the regularly spaced Grid layout with equal size rows and columns evenly laid out and the more complicated free form layout where the panel shapes and location vary rapidly.

So why are these used? Till recently most of the “Craft” of comic book writing that I had learnt had come from reading movie screenplays and/or visualizing the scene being played out in my mind as a movie scene. That my friend was (as I learned the hard way) a big mistake! Comic books while they share certain visual motifs with movies are an entirely different and independent beast.

Let us examine the primary reason why. In a movie, you can actually control shot length (fancy name for amount of time a viewer sees a certain visual). In comics the entire page is there right before the eyes of the reader and you have absolutely no control how long a reader spends on a particular panel.

Well the previous statement is not entirely true. Layouts and visual storytelling scripts of the artist can “lead” the eye making it follow a particular pattern/path across the page. But that’s it. So how do we deal with passage of time in a comic book page or rather while visualizing / scripting a comic book page.

The answer lies in the layout. The human mind is a powerful thing. Imagine a comic book page. The panels are static snapshots of the action and our minds fill up what Scott McCloud calls in his books the “gutter action” (Gutter being the gap between two panels).

A grid by definition is a regularly spaced layout and most readers take this subconsciously as an indication that passage of time is uniformly regular across the panels as opposed to a freeform page where a smaller panel might register as a shorter length visual than a larger one (There are exceptions to this as well). This is a really handy tool in the scripter’s toolkit.

Grids when used properly convey a very regular flow of time. So it is possible to use them as (The list is by no means exhaustive only indicative) is by no means exhaustive only indicative:

  1. decompressed storytelling (lingering on a particular shot) where only a minor visual detail changes from panel to panel
  2. set up a checkerboard pattern by alternating between two shots (of say two people talking or one guy talking and some other stuff happening elsewhere)

A grid sets up the reader into a lull from which you have a platform to blow their socks off by for example setting up a magnificent splash or a two page spread.

Coming back to our discussion on shot length, this usually is pretty handy. Remember all those movies where mind blowing action is preceded by a sequence of slow deliberate shots? The contrast is what makes the action more explosive so to say.

Imagine a splash of a bomb going off. A good artist puts in a lot of energy and dynamism into the scene. But in itself the impact is not as potent as it should be.

Let’s say the preceding page set up a checkerboard pattern of a guy entering his house vs. a close up of the timer on the bomb. Let us say we’re using a nine panel grid.

  • Panel 1: a shot of the timer showing 0.15
  • Panel 2: a shot of a man fiddling with the doorknob on the door to his apartment.
  • Panel 3: a shot of the timer showing 0:12
  • Panel 4: the man loosening his tie
  • Panel 5: a shot of the timer showing 0:05
  • Panel 6 : a shot of the man from profile as he hears something perhaps the ticking of the timer?
  • Panel 7: a shot of the timer showing 0:02
  • Panel 8: an extreme close up of the man’s face as he has noticed the bomb.
  • Panel 9: a shot of the timer showing 0:00

Next page we have the magnificent explosion splash.

The second sequence is definitely much more powerful than just the explosion splash.

So remember grids are a handy tool, when used they provide a context / regular rhythm to your unfolding action that serves to underline the dynamism / energy of a sudden “sharp” action sequence that much more eye catching.

But the caveat here is that when used too much, grids lull the reader to a degree that they simply don’t care anymore :)

So as with all things, use wisely.

Some nice examples of grid usage that I have found and reference often are Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” series of books.


Page from Dark Knight Returns


Page from Leage of Extraordinary Gentlemen : CENTURY 1910

Interesting to note in the LXG page that the middle row is a single panel that uses up all three slots of the grid.

You may also check Warren Ellis’s FELL, which is told almost entirely in 9 panel grid format.


Page from FELL

See ya when I see ya…

toodles,
mohaps

This is a repost from my “Nine Panel Grid” column at Comics Waiting Room. You can find other Nine Panel Grid columns here

[CRAFT] 22 Pages of Doom – on pacing a comic book issue (a NINE PANEL GRID column)

22 Pages, mark this number down my friend, the bane of every writer who has a monthly gig – the industry standard story page count of a monthly issue of a comic book.

Filling up the said 22 pages is the subject of much head scratching, heartache and frustration – especially when the mind goes blank and the deadline comes a-knocking at the writer’s door.

My first gig was writing a series of one-shots for Virgin Comics called INDIA AUTHENTIC. IA told the myths and legends of the Indian pantheon and since there was no continuity from one story to the next, it was not the hardest thing in the world to write. Sure, given the number of versions of each myth and the fact that I wanted the stories to be a bit more than dry biographies, I put in a significant amount of work into treating the stories as sort of a secret origins kinda gig – every story tried to capture the theme that defines the dramatis personae for the world at large. So once I locked down the story, I’d just sit down and hammer out 22 pages.

Now the very next gig I got was an ongoing monthly – DEVI. Herein, o reader, my troubles began. A monthly comic book title (especially an ongoing one) is like a TV series. Each issue has to be reasonably enjoyable on a stand alone basis (at least that’s how my editor Ron Marz, quite astutely, wished it to be) and also forward the greater arc narrative. We also decided off the bat that we should not be too steeped in continuity to ward off new readers irrespective of the index of the issue they picked up as their first.

Oy Vey! It was very exhausting, but I like to think we (Ron and I) did manage to pull that off in the run we had on DEVI. Right off the bat we were so far behind deadlines (due to factors out of our control – I was moving back stateside after a year long sabbatical in India, Ron was taking over as Editor from Mackenzie Cadenhead etc. etc.). We had a couple of weeks to go from story to pencils and we didn’t have the plot. So during brainstorming session at Ron’s house, I floated the idea of starting off with a collection of three short stories about the main characters in the series – sort of explain their motivations and background. Ron, who taught me a lot during my run on DEVI and SADHU, instantly caught on to the idea and also suggested that we use framing pages at the beginning and end of the issue and in between the stories to sort of provide a narrative. Being a veteran of comic books, he understood the 22 page structure and how to navigate through them. So 3 stories, six pages each and 4 framing splash images. We had our 22 pages. We did some back and forth on the plot of the short stories and needless to say made our deadline.

Later as I started writing full 22 page stories, I had issues (pun not intended) with how much can fit into that. Again here Ron’s experience saved me from a lot of blunders. My first treatment for DEVI #12 had seven scene changes, so on an average every third page the narrative would shift to a different scene. I knew the story I wanted to tell from #12-#15 and was setting up a lot of the stuff here. But going over Ron’s redline I realized that, when read as a standalone issue, it was pretty confusing. So we talked and later came up with sort of a format for telling a 22 page story.

But before I get to that, I must touch upon another mistake most first timers are likely to make. When I submitted the second draft of the treatment, it was too decompressed. Ron’s note said something to the effect – “Now it’s dragging, every single item is getting a visual. The pacing was too much like Manga.” So as in everything else in life, the answer is in the Golden Mean.

So coming back to the format – a safe format for the 22 pages (Your mileage may vary, but this worked for me).

ACT I (Pages 1-4)
First 4 pages are ACT I. I usually either began with a splash or had 2-3 as a two page spread. This was setup. It was something I came back to later in the issue. For an arc beginning, I would use this page for a sequence that would serve as a springboard for the entire plot. For middle issues, this was where the dramatic kaboom sequence would go in to start things off with a bang.

ACT II (Pages 5-16)
ACT II was the next dozen or so pages or so (up to page 16-17). Page 5 cut from the opening action to the thick of the story and for 3-4 pages we set up the first obstacle of the story. So most probably on page 9 or 10 we’ll get the first glimpse of what really will our protagonist(s) be up against (we might’ve hinted at this in ACT I). Then on Page 9/10, I used to cut to something that was a continuation of the opening pages and for the next three pages use that to move the story forward. That takes us to Page #14. Page 15,16,17 then serve as the setup pages which bring the thread started in act I and the sequence that introduced ACT II together and positions everyone and everything for the finale / ACT III. If I planned on ending with a big fight scene, it usually would’ve started by page 15, so that the 16-17 double spread would be used up to show a great widescreen shot.

ACT III (Pages 17-22)
For ACT III, Page 18 and 19 usually were used to show the protagonist bouncing back and kicking some righteous ass. For more story driven issues 20 and 21 introduced / foreshadowed the next issues story and 22 splash was used as a cliffhanger.

It’s a simple structure, but I felt comfortable working with it. It meant I didn’t have to worry about pacing so much, since I knew where my act braks and plot points would be. Of course it is not a rigid formula nor is it a paint by numbers kind of thing. I used this as a rough guide and hope something like this helps you write a better 22 page story.

Till next time.

Toodles,

mohaps

This is a repost from my “Nine Panel Grid” column at Comics Waiting Room. You can find other Nine Panel Grid columns here

[CRAFT] Get the hell out of the way (a NINE PANEL GRID column)

My first comic book story (one I got paid for) was published sometime around this time of the year in 2006. So that makes it 4 years (yeah, I’m a math whiz :P ) “in the biz” for me. It’s been a great ride. Balancing a dayjob (and later parenthood) with writing has been challenging, but very rewarding. I’ve had the good fortune of working with some great people and have come to know (or even make friends with) some creators who were till even a couple of years back hallowed names in the credits pages of books I adore. Yeah, it’s been a good ride.

So today, as I nurse a busted ankle, I felt like writing a blog post about one of the primary lessons I learned through my 4 years of working in comics. Much as a writer’s ego wouldn’t let him/her admit it, Comics are primarily a visual medium. A writer seeds the vision, but the artist executes it. The art is what one sees first and thus great art is a must-have hook for a reader to pick up an “unfamiliar/unknown” comic book in the first place. So the first part of the writer’s contribution – the script, is sort of “invisible”.

The script and the initial panel breakdowns decide the pace of the comic book and set a box around the artist’s execution space. For example, as a novice I had this habit of putting every single visual and transition I could think of on the page. The result was a very panel heavy page that didn’t account for the fact that someone had to draw it (and someone else had to letter it too). Condensed information of this nature is visually off-putting as well as confusing. Visual stimulus is one of the most direct methods of perception in Cognitive Theory followed closely by Sound and Smell. So overloading the visuals, results in a confusing disjoint experience that turns off the reader and sometimes assaults their senses too.

So the key to visual storytelling, in my humble opinion, is simplicity. The one lesson you learn as a writer of comic books is to “Keep It Simple, Stupid” (KISS). A writer must learn intuitively the art of picking “frozen moments in time” from the entire timeline of the unfolding action and give the art some “breathing space”. Trust your artistic collaborator to execute the sequence you’ve chosen and (as the title of the post says) “Get the hell out of the artist’s way”

Once the art is done, the writer’s pawprints show up again in a comic book via the captions and speech balloons. Lettering is often compared to other “invisible arts” like the background score of movies. When done right it enhances the experience, without intruding on to the foreground of perception. Conversely, when screwed up it completely ruins the experience. As a writer, I’ve come to learn the hard way to let the art “speak” rather than go around ham-handedly inserting text to repeat what is already explained in the art. Comics are unique in the fact that all of the different dimensions of storytelling (art, speech, sound effects) occupy the same 2D visual plane and panel real estate is a zero-sum resource. More you use for Captions / Bubbles / SFX, the less you have for art. So sometimes it’s again just better to let the art “breathe” and “get the hell out of the way”.

Of course, I am by no means an expert on sequential storytelling. These are things and practices that have worked for me and your mileage may vary… a lot.

Until next time,

Toodles.
Mohaps

I used to write a column called “Nine Panel Grid” at Comics Waiting Room about my experiences as a writer and things I learned as I moved through the world of comics. I have decided to continue writing those “columns” here at my blog.