AlphaBands: X is for XTC

X is for XTC



AlphaBands is a weekly online collaborative project in which illustrators and cartoonists draw a band or musician for one letter of the alphabet each week for 26 weeks. See the art and find out more at the AlphaBands tumblr: http://alphabands.tumblr.com/



Catching Up On AlphaBands: V & W

V is for Vince Guaraldi

Vince G

W is for Woody Guthrie

Woodie Guthrie


AlphaBands is a weekly online collaborative project in which illustrators and cartoonists draw a band or musician for one letter of the alphabet each week for 26 weeks. See the art and find out more at the AlphaBands tumblr: http://alphabands.tumblr.com/


My Friend and Collaborator: Chris Reilly 1967 – 2014

My friend Chris Reilly passed away this week.

I first met Chris Reilly in Bethesda, Maryland at the 2003 Small Press Expo. SPX was a lot different then–as was I. The Expo was held in a smallish hotel in the heart of Bethesda proper and it was a much, much smaller event than the indie comics behemoth it’s become. It wasn’t as polished as its current incarnation, but there was a sense of comradery to the event that came with the turf for a not widely-known event in the very beginnings of the “graphic novel boom” days.

As for me: I was at SPX for the first time as an actual comics creator hawking my own book (Farewell, Georgia)–and not just by myself at a table, but at the big SLG table, alongside tons of other actual, well-known comics people. I’d been to Heroes Con a few times and to an earlier SPX (or maybe two?) but I’d never been behind a table selling a book before–and to a newcomer that comradery can seem like an impenetrable barrier. As if I weren’t nervous and awkward enough, when I showed up to pick up my badge, my name was nowhere to be found. Ultimately the situation got sorted out (you can see I had to hand-scrawl my name on a blank badge) but it was a rocky start to an intimidating situation. IMG_20140612_132052My trajectory through the world of comics would likely have been a very different one if I’d not had the good fortune to be seated at the SLG table next to Chris Reilly. I’d eventually get to know and be friends with lots of people I met at that SPX, but I walked in not knowing a soul (remember, this is pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter) and left feeling like I was–even in some small way–part of a larger community of like-minded comics practitioners, and Chris was instrumental in that.

If you’ve met Chris, I don’t need to tell you that he was one of the most enthusiastic, energetic, outgoing, and just plain amiable people you’re likely to encounter. He introduced himself, said he’d read and liked my book, and we immediately hit it off. Hanging out with Chris in the hotel bar at the SLG-sponsored afterparty in the company of big name comics folk like Evan Dorkin and Frank Miller is to this day one of my fondest memories from any comics event.

In the years that followed, Chris and I became good friends, spoke regularly, and collaborated on many comics projects. Chris’s enthusiasm for comics was infectious. When he got an idea in his head, there was no stopping him. The first project of his I got involved with was an anthology he and his friend Steve were putting together called Strange Eggs. Comics people ruminate on anthology projects all the time but all to often never actually put the projects together, but within a few weeks of agreeing to do a story for Strange Eggs and maybe “help out” a bit with production (I wound up doing pretty much all the production work on the series), Chris was emailing me completed story after completed story by people like Roger Langridge, Derf, Crab Scrambly, Tommy Kovac and tons more. We did two more issues of Strange Eggs and more odds and ends projects together than I can list here, often with me illustrating Chris’s stories. pg_4

(Page from The Boxing Bucket. Words: Chris Reilly. Pictures: Ben Towle)

Chris’s writing was as manic and unpredictable as he was. “Madcap” is an overused term, but his writing was indeed madcap: sometimes dark, always funny–in a way that used to be a lot more commonplace during the “black and white boom” than what followed.  Beyond his actual comics storytelling, though, Chris was a consummate storyteller of all varieties. Answering a call from Chris entailed an hour-long commitment at a  minimum. Get a few beers into Chris at a con hotel bar and he’d regale you with stories about being bitten by a rabid raccoon (he thought it was a cat and tried to pet it), playing in a band with Cheetah Chrome (“Gothic Snowtire”),  or trying Flaming Carrot-style to read every single submitted single issue comic in one sitting the year he was an Eisner Awards judge.

More so than anyone else I’ve ever known, Chris was a creature of comics conventions. No one enjoyed being at comics industry events the way Chris seemed to. His already vigorous personality fed off the bustling energy of any comics convention he attended. He was genuinely perplexed by people wanting to “decompress” (a phrase he particularly loathed) after a day tabling at a con.

As far as I could tell, Chris Reilly didn’t sleep. There were many times I remember leaving Chris at some afterparty or late-night bar at a con hotel at two or three in the morning. I’d have been bleary-eyed, stumbling back to my room….and yet, the next morning bright and early, there’d be Chris–apparently unfazed–setting up his table, regaling me with tales of some hotel room party I’d missed out on in the wee hours.

Chris often seemed to be operating just on the periphery of the comics community. In one of the most bizarrely ignored comics events of late, he successfully sued Dreamworks for copying the design of one of his characters from his 90’s comics series, Rogue Satellite Comics.

Miniontumblr_mgslegRiLn1qaw3rpo1_1280(Above: Minion from Megamind. Below: Kingfish from Rogue Satellite Comics, drawn by Kevin Atkinson)

The last time I saw Chris in person was at the San Diego Comic-Con last year (2013). One of his lifelong infatuations had been Art Clokey’s Gumby and he’d finally gotten the chance to follow in the footsteps of one of his favorite comics of all time, the Gumby Summer Fun Special (Bob Burden and Art Adams, 1987) and write a licensed Gumby comic. The first issue or two had gone well, but he was clearly frustrated that he’d written an issue (and I’m guessing paid partially out of his own pocket for it to be illustrated) that wasn’t being released.


Chris had a backpack full of Gumby issues with him and we were poring over them at this semi-cheesy San Diego bar in the wee hours of Saturday night when a crowd of tipsy twenty-something women burst through the door with their dudebro companions. The ladies asked us about the comics we were looking at and when Chris explained that he wrote Gumby comics, they went nuts. “OHMYGAWD! YOU WRITE GUMBY?! I FUCKING LOVE GUMBY!!”  Chris–as was his nature–gave out Gumby comics to everyone and signed copies for anyone who asked. The drunker these women got, the more they loved Gumby apparently. “I FUCKIN’ LOVE GUMBY!!”

I spoke to Chris after San Diego 2013 via phone several times and I could tell all was not well. He hadn’t been well, in fact, since he suffered an exhaustion-related health event (a stroke of some sort?)  when he was an Eisner judge in 2007. Since then, his behavior had been erratic and on the phone he often seemed scatterbrained or oddly out of it. Other times, he was his “old self,” though.

“Comics will break your heart,” Charles Schulz famously said. I sure think comics broke Chris’s heart.

I could have been a better friend to Chris. I should have been a better friend. I don’t, though, realistically think there’s anything I could have said or done that’d have would have altered the course Chris was on.

I could choose to have my last remembrance of Chris be my final phone conversation with him–where I had to make a rude early exit thanks to the appearance of the cable installers. I won’t, though. Instead I’ll remember him after Comic-Con, embraced by some random girl raving “I FUCKING LOVE GUMBY!!” while he proudly and generously gave away signed copies of his work.

I miss you, Chris.


AlphaBands: United Future Organization

U is for United Future Organization

united future organization


AlphaBands is a weekly online collaborative project in which illustrators and cartoonists draw a band or musician for one letter of the alphabet each week for 26 weeks. See the art and find out more at the AlphaBands tumblr: http://alphabands.tumblr.com/


Is Bill Watterson Guest-drawing on Pearls Before Swine?

At the beginning of this week Pearls Before Swine cartoonist Stephan Pastis mentioned that something “mind-blowing” was upcoming in this week’s story-line:


In Monday’s strip, Pastis’s neighbor (Pastis appears as a character in the strip), a little girl named Libby, taunts Pastis about his drawing ability. In the following strip, she shows off her own drawing chops in the strip’s second panel:

pb140604The panel here didn’t strike me as being as Watterson-y as it did to some people. Watterson had a very distinctive way of drawing trees and that tree with the spot black leaf area didn’t jibe. Also, the mixed case lettering here looks a lot like the lettering in Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley:


This, though, is probably just because it’s in mixed case, which you don’t see a whole ton in newspaper comics. Unlike the rest of the characters–and unlike Calvin and Hobbes–the crocs in Pearls Before Swine speak in mixed case rather than all caps.

Those shoes, though, really do look like Watterson-drawn shoes.  Here’re some shoes from Pearls,  C&H, and Watterson’s recent illustration for the Stripped documentary:


The following strip (Thursday, July 5th) pulled out all the stops Watterson-wise:



The second panel features some very Watterson-y stuff–the way the skyline fades into the ground, the spaceships with “headlights”:


The final panel’s “if I had more space” gag could easily be a reference to Watterson’s well-known battles with newspapers over the ever-shrinking space allotted to newspaper comics.

In both strips, the guest lettering is remarkably similar to Watterson’s, including Watterson’s tendency to write “A”s slightly smaller than the other letters.

If this isn’t Watterson’s work, then it’s the best Watterson imitation I’ve ever seen. His style is notoriously hard to mimic and his work is so well-loved that imitations tend to stand out like a sore thumb. (Oy, don’t get me started on that “Zen Pencils” thing…)

If it is Watterson, it wouldn’t be a total surprise. He hasn’t done any strip cartooning since he retired Calvin and Hobbes, but he has engaged with the comics scene a bit of late, which he’s not done in a long, long time. He granted an interview earlier this year, wrote the introduction to the forthcoming Complete Cul de Sac, and (as referenced above) did an illustration for the comics documentary, Stripped.

Stay tuned for Friday’s Pearls Before Swine


Friday’s strip again featured a guest panel from “Libby” and folks seemed to find it the least Watterson-y of them all and I’d agree with them…


…except for the drafting table and chair. Note that they’re virtually identical–down to the way the in progress comic strip is taped down–to the drafting table and chair in the Stripped poster:


Update the Second:

Yep, it’s Watterson.

Here’s the whole story on Stephan Pastis’s blog.

And here’s a write-up in the Washington Post… that obliquely mentions this very post!



AlphaBands – T is for Tammy Wynette

T is for Tammy Wynette


I got a bit overly-brushy here, but what the heck. That’s what weekly projects like these are for: experimentation.


AlphaBands is a weekly online collaborative project in which illustrators and cartoonists draw a band or musician for one letter of the alphabet each week for 26 weeks. See the art and find out more at the AlphaBands tumblr: http://alphabands.tumblr.com/


Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan Prints For Sale/Process Post

Our local independent theater, a/perture Cinema is doing a yearlong film series in which local artists pick films to be screened each month and design posters to accompany them. Of the five films I submitted for consideration, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was selected. (My other four were The Road Warrior, Kung Fu Hustle, Yojimbo, and The Great Escape). My Khan design went on sale at the screening last week and is now available via Etsy:

Buy at Etsy

The prints turned out really nicely. These are big (24″ x 18″) two-color screenprinted posters on heavy acid-free stock. The run was limed to 50 prints and they’re all signed by me. They’re $25 each.

The colors in the Esty image are kinda weird looking. Here’s a more accurate version.

khan_final And here’s a pic of the actual poster (banana for scale):

IMG_20140602_133907If you’re in Winston-Salem you can also buy them from Delurk Gallery on 6th Street.


My first thought about possible poster designs for Khan was to do something that visually referenced Das Boot–since one of the three big ingredients of the film is the chase scene at the end which is basically a WWII submarine chase. (Since no one asked, I’d put “Moby Dick in space,” and “character-driven growing old/friendship story” as the other two main ingredients.)

das boot - butaca de primera 9

The more I thought about the big face in the Das Boot poster, though, the more I was reminded of manga artist Leiji Matsumoto‘s pinup images for his space opera manga/anime series like Space Battleship Yamato:

leiji-matsumoto-pia-art-book-10Ultimately, I wound up preserving only the blue color scheme from the Das Boot image and going with a more Matsumoto-like layout. I started by fooling around with photo reference images:



The lettering is from the Japanese movie poster. The Enterprise image here is responsible for my including the extraneous “-A” in the ship’s hull number (alas, caught only after the image had been sent to the printer). I then worked up a very rough sketch of the poster, just to get the layout and color scheme more finalized:

mockup v2 At some point in the process I decided to add Kirk in. I did the piece in Manga Studio and the “Kirby Krackle” is from specialized Kirby Krackle brush I got from, well, somewhere. I can’t remember where exactly. Here’re the pencils. You can see that I’ve added the little panels along the bottom at this point:

just pencils

I’m much happier with how Khan turned out than Kirk. I Kirk’s case, I think I sacrificed too much “manga-ness” in favor of likeness. The Kirk in the pencil version doesn’t look a whole heck of a lot like William Shatner, but I think he matches the overall style of the image better. William Shatner, incidentally, I found to be really really difficult to draw. I Googled up caricatures of him and there were very few that were any good. Not surprisingly Al Hirschfeld and Tom Richmond both did great young Shatner drawings. Most folks either didn’t capture his likeness well or went with the older Shatener, who’s a lot easier to draw because you can trade on things like his puffy cheeks, wrinkles, hairline, etc.

BTREKAs mentioned, the entire image was done in Manga Studio. One feature of the program that I really dug into for this drawing was the rulers. They were extremely helpful for doing things like the Japanese lettering and the saucer section of the Enterprise. I could basically trace out the forms that I wanted with rulers and then use an inking nib to go over them. The rulers impart the required precision, but I still got the variability of a nib line instead of the sterile uniform line I’d have gotten if I’d used, for example, the draw ellipse tool for the saucer shapes.

Big thanks to a/perture for asking me to do this project–and thanks to everyone who came out to the screening, especially folks that came in uniform! The actual screenprinting was handled by Vahalla Studios and they did a fantastic job.



AlphaBands: S is for Sly Stone

S is for Sly Stone

Sly StoneAs usual, this was drawn entirely in Digital Manga Studio with various Ray Frenden brushes.


AlphaBands is a weekly online collaborative project in which illustrators and cartoonists draw a band or musician for one letter of the alphabet each week for 26 weeks. See the art and find out more at the AlphaBands tumblr: http://alphabands.tumblr.com/



AlphaBands: R is for Rick Rubin

R is for Rick Rubin

rick ruben


AlphaBands is a weekly online collaborative project in which illustrators and cartoonists draw a band or musician for one letter of the alphabet each week for 26 weeks. See the art and find out more at the AlphaBands tumblr: http://alphabands.tumblr.com/


Let’s Stop Using Film Terminology to Talk About Comics


“I think Milt (Caniff) studied the movies. I didn’t…” -Roy Crane


Despite the beautiful cartooning (and obvious historical importance) of Milt Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, I have to admit I’ll always bear it a grudge. It’s the strip that seems to have firmly and permanently cut off the formal/visual development of comics as its own unique medium and solidified the visual language of comics we have today–a visual language that’s largely derived from film.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that pretty much any critical discussion of the artwork in modern comics is now couched in film terminology–what “shots” the artist chose, what “camera angles.” Here’s the thing, though: comics aren’t made with a camera. They’re drawings.* And when we talk about and think about comics using film terminology, we’re not only confining ourselves to only engaging with certain aspects of the medium, but (for those of us who make comics) we’re confining ourselves to only telling stories in certain ways.


What follows are some fairly random and disordered thoughts I’ve had over the last few years spurred by my own personal ruminations and by some Twitter conversations I’ve had on the subject. Is it possible I’m completely wrong? Maybe. Will people ever stop talking about “camera angles” when discussing comics? Probably not.

But here goes:

The Big Point™: Language matters – The way you talk about a subject affects the way you think about it. And the way you think about it affects the way you engage with it. If you’re a cartoonist and you’re thinking about “camera angles” you’ve already taken one of comics’ most interesting, powerful, and unique capabilities off the table: its graphical and diagramatic abilities.

If most comics ape the visual language of film, why not use film terminology? – OK, fair point. But I think this bypasses more important concerns: why are most comics aping the visual language of film, and is this the healthiest state of affairs for the medium? It’s vicious circle. We use filmic terminology to discuss comics because they employ filmic visual language… and comics employ filmic visual language because that’s how we think and talk about comics. Any situation that limits the available tools to think about and create comics is not an optimal situation.

Well how the heck else would you make comics?! (part 1) – Before the formal language of comics got inexorably mixed up with the language of film, comics got along just fine. Look at pre-WWII newspaper comics. Often these strips were staged with the characters’ full bodies visible in most of the panels–and viewed directly head-on from eye level. I love the amazing clarity and straightforwardness of strips like this:


A lot of later newspaper comics adopted these straightforward ways of staging, either because of tradition or as a response to the shrinking size of the comics page. I think there’s a reason you can hand the average non-comics reading adult a Peanuts collection and they can engage with it readily, but that same person would likely find the most recent issue of Spawn impenetrable.

In fact, I think this type of staging is comics’ most natural (for lack of a better term) mode, which is maybe part of the reason these sorts of comics communicate so clearly. I teach comics classes for kids and almost to a person, this is how kids will stage a comics story–eye level full body views of the characters, no “camera angles”:


On the other hand, though, pre-film influence comics were developing their own unique formal language. My mind boggles at the amazing formal “toolkit” we might have at our disposal today if comics like these had been the primary influencing force on comics’ visual language rather that film:

Crazy Quilt



Well how the heck else would you make comics?! (part 2) – Some of the most highly lauded recent comics and graphic novels have been from creators who are either deliberately or just naturally not using filmic visual language. What “shots” are these? What “camera angle” is being employed?



The recent “pizza dog” issue of Hawkeye employed a bunch of Chris Ware-esque formalistic/diagramatic devices and apparently it just blew people’s minds. Why are these sorts of formal devices employed so rarely?

But comics and film have so much in common! – I hear this all the time, but when I press the issue the response I usually get is, “They’re both visual narrative… and, uh…” Notwithstanding the fact that neither film nor comics are necessarily narrative in nature, this is just about the only thing that I can think of that the two media have in common. Everything else–physical scale, shared vs. private experience, drawings vs. actual pictures of things, multiple static images vs. illusion of motion, the way time is controlled/experienced, etc.–seems to me to be radically different. They’re different things and we should think about and discuss them differently.

Comics is a mish-mash. Why not borrow terms from other forms of art? – I’d be totally fine with borrowing terms from other forms (plural) of art, but in point of fact we’re taking terminology and concepts from one form of art: film. I’d love to see applicable terminology from graphic design, theater, poetry, information design, etc. being used to discuss comics. Talking about cadence, balance, line quality, rhythm, unity, repetition, staging, composition, blocking, etc. all make a heck of a lot more sense applied to comics than talking about a “camera.”

Film’s visual language is as close as it gets to mimicking naturalistic sight. Why not use that language and its terminology? – First, this presupposes that mimicking naturalistic sight is the end visual goal of comics. It isn’t. We’ve got cameras for that. Even if it were, the language of film is very, very different than the way we perceive the world around us. We don’t experience the world with “cuts” or in any sort of discrete bordered visual field.

More important to comics-making, though, is that a lot of film’s visual language is arbitrary (is cutting off the figure at the waist intrinsically different that cutting it off at the thigh? The former is an established shot in film; the latter is to be avoided in film) and a lot of it is driven by concerns unrelated to effective visual communication–concerns like budget and technology. For a perfect example of how this can affect comics negatively, see the section on “Location Staging” in this great Jesse Ham post on Moebius. These are exactly the sorts of things that have seeped into the visual language of comics to its detriment.


If you’re making (or discussing) mimetic narrative, film terminology works. Why not use it? – OK, <sigh> if you’re really hell-bent on strictly mimetic storytelling and you’re just talking about how to compose a particular panel, I guess this is true. On the other hand, (a) again, why is this mode of storytelling privileged over all others? And, (b) there’s a ton of other stuff you should be thinking/talking about beyond mimetic panel-level staging. If we employed other terminology and concepts more often, maybe neither of these’d be a concern.

Film has a much more developed/advanced visual language. Why not borrow from that? – Yeah, of course we comics folk can learn from film. But, don’t you wonder why film has that advanced visual language? Maybe because film practitioners and critics devoted their efforts to developing film’s own unique formal vocabulary, not aping some other medium’s?


Look, I understand that talking about “shots” and “camera angles” is an easy go-to for discussing (and creating) certain types of comics… but in the long run I think it’s contributing–at least a little tiny bit–to comics’ continued arrested formal development. I say this even as someone who’s created tons of comics that are pretty much 100% mimetic in the way they tell stories. Maybe that’s precisely why this is a subject that concerns me: I know that my comics–and all comics–could be a lot better, a lot more interesting if we all thought about comics as more than “movies on paper.”


*Yes, I’m well aware of what Fumetti is. That’s not what I’m talking about and you know it, smartass.


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