In the Weeds Progress: More on Character Designs

As I mentioned in my last In the Weeds progress post, one of my post-Oyster War take-aways was that I need to spend more time working on character designs before I sit down and start drawing pages. To that end, I’ve spent some time over the last few weeks focusing on the badger character (I really need to give all the characters names!). I won’t give every single character this kind of time and focus pre-drawing, but since he’s the main character I thought he merited some extra attention design-wise.

I started out trying to get used to drawing his body in typical stage poses. I figured that if I could nail a few of these, everyday actions/poses would be pretty easy. Here’s one of the more successful ones:

body study 01

…and the photo ref I based it on. That’s Mike Watt, one of my favorite musicians of all time.


One thing I noticed when practicing full body poses was my tendency to revert back to more human-like body proportions, rather than the more animal-ish proportions of the original design. You can see that going on pretty clearly in the bottom drawing here, where I’ve inadvertently shortened his torso and lengthened his legs, making his body much more human-like:


This character was originally going to be the guitar player, but I decided just for purely visual reasons that the rhino character should play the smaller of the two instruments–so, this guy became the bass player. He’s playing a ’75 Gibson Ripper, by the way. I have handy photo ref of that particular model in the form of my bass from back in the Dark Ages of the 1990s when I was in a band:


Another thing I noticed when doing some of those full body drawings was that I was having a particularly difficult time drawing his head. I like the way it looked in the initial design, but I was struggling to draw it from different angles. This isn’t an uncommon problem; you can get a good looking drawing from one angle but be at a total loss to draw it from some other angle. The reason for this is usually a lack of understanding of construction—that is: the basic shapes that make up the form you’re trying to draw. Here’s a page of me struggling with getting his head to look right:


I continued for a while to try working out a good construction in my sketchbook, but wasn’t making much progress. Eventually, I decided to pull out the big guns and make a quick maquette of the badger’s head. I’m a bit wary of maquette-making for a few reasons, but I do feel like they can be really useful in situations like this because in making the maquette you’re forcing yourself to settle on a construction and learn it. I made a point not to spend a ton of time on it, but here’s the result:


As an aside: I was struggling with a similar problem with the rhino character a while back and tried building a model of his head with Silo, a 3-D modeling tool. I eventually gave up because I felt like I couldn’t justify the time I’d have to commit to learning the software vs. working on paper or with Sculpey. Some day, though, I’ll revisit some 3-D software. It’d be a great tool to know how to use.


Making the maquette seems to have really helped me out, as I had a much better grasp of basic construction after that. My final exercise with the badger was do do a round of facial expressions. I’d usually not do practice facial expressions to this degree of finish, but I’m still figuring out how I want to ink/tone these characters, so I figured it’d be good practice:

facial expressions

facial expressions

These aren’t perfect, but I’m definitely starting to learn my way around his facial features and basic head construction.

Now, onward to to some of the other characters (but maybe not in such depth)!


Last Two “Oyster Tour” Appearances… and Commissions!

Oyster Tour Final Appearances

The Oyster Tour is winding down! It’s been great fun, but I’m looking forward to being done with travelling and holing up in my studio here to work on In the Weeds.  I do, though, have two more appearances before things wrap up:

Heroes Con – Charlotte, NC – June 18th and 19th – I never miss this one! I don’t have my table information yet, nor info on the annual “Mega-Panel” I do with Craig Fischer yet, but when I do, I’ll update this page. Note that Heroes is a three-day (Friday-Sunday) show, but that I’ll only be there Saturday and Sunday.

Update – Here’s the info on this year’s Mega-Panel:

Creatures Imagined and Real

HeroesCon, Saturday, June 18, 4pm

For this year’s mega-panel, cartoonist Ben Towle and critic Craig Fischer corral a host of talented creators to discuss the improbable animals (fictional and real) that stomp and slither through our favorite comics. Craig begins by presiding over a chat with Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon about the elegant vampires, saddled bears, and Lovecraftian monsters they introduced to the Mignolaverse flagship title B.P.R.D. Then Ben presents the preliminary work he’s done on his future graphic novel In the Weeds—and why he’s chosen to draw his central characters as badgers, rhinos, bears, and other animals. Finally, librarian and Women Write About Comics contributor Jennie Law leads three world-class dinosaur artists—Dustin Harbin, Budd Root, and William Stout—through a talk about the challenges and joys of drawing giant reptiles.

Update – I’ve received my table location. I’ll be in artists’ alley, table AA-34. That’s dead center of the hall, all the way on the back wall behind Indie Island. Here’s a map:


Comic-Con International: San Diego – San Diego, CA – July 22 & 23 – AKA “San Diego Comic-Con.” Yep, the big one! I’ll be there mainly to attend the Eisner Awards ceremony, but I will be signing at the Oni Press booth as well. Again, I don’t have info yet on Oni’s booth location or my signing schedule, but I’ll update this page as I get that information. I’ll be there just Friday and Saturday.

Update: I’ll be signing copies of Oyster War at the Oni Press booth (1833) from 4:30 – 5:30 Friday.


If you’re interested in a commission to be picked up at either of these shows, get in touch with me at benzilla@benzilla.com or tweet at me at @ben_towle. Here’re a handful of pieces, just to give you an idea of size and cost. All are done on either 2 ply Strathmore Bristol board (for just pen and ink stuff) or good quality watercolor paper (for ink with sepia wash). These are mostly superhero characters, but I’m up for almost anything as far as subject matter goes. Just let me know what you’re after.

Single characters with or without sepia wash (7″x 4″ish) – $50:

Two characters with or without sepia wash or single character with color (8″ x 8″ish) – $85:

Large images, multiple characters, complex scenes, etc. (10″ x 15″ish) – Contact me about price. These were all between $175 and $350:

You want some original art. You know you do! Gimme a shout.


The Stunning Japanese Star Trek Art of Toru Kanamori

Yesterday in a far corner of the Star Trek interwebs I stumbled on two really beautiful cover illustrations from Japanese Star Trek books.

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There’s a lot to love about these images. I particularly like how loose and expressionistic (for lack of a better word) they are. I don’t know exactly when these came out in Japan, but they’re apparently translations of the James Blish episode adaptations that came out in the US between 1967 and 1977. Obviously book covers vary widely style-wise even in the same era, but just by way of comparison, here’s what I’d consider a pretty typical example of North American SF book cover illustration from the same era–a Chris Foss cover for James Blish’s Midsummer Century from 1975:


(I adore Chris Foss’s work as well, by the way!)

After a bit of digging, I discovered that those Trek covers are the work of Toru Kanamori, a now semi-retired illustrator living in Ome, a suburb of Tokyo. The only English-language information I could find about Kanamori is here, a website set up by David Bull, a woodblock printer who’s a neighbor of Kanamori.

According to Bull, Kanamori was once a very popular illustrator in Japan, but his name at least is now largely forgotten there.  When Star Trek first made inroads in Japan, Kanamori was selected to do the artwork for the translated novelizations. For each book he would supply a cover image, a color spread frontispiece, and a number of black and white interior illustrations. Bull’s site has scans of a handful of interior illustrations… and they’re amazing.

It took some dedicated internet scouring, but I managed to turn up a few websites that have scans of his covers. These two seem to be the most comprehensive. Here’s a quick gallery I put together of some of my favorites, but there are more to explore at those two sites:

Sadly, I couldn’t turn up any of Kanamori’s frontispiece paintings other than the one on Bull’s site.


One final thing I did turn up: there was a collection of Kanamori’s SF illustrations released in the U.S. via manga publisher Tohan in 2008. The book was called Toru Kanamori SF Art Original Sketches and retailed for a hefty $55.00. I’ve so far not turned up a copy for sale here, but I’ve got a saved Ebay search set up. Here’s an image of the cover:


I’d love to see Toru Kanamori’s Star Trek stuff in particular collected and made available in the U.S. After posting those initial two images to Twitter it became obvious that even Star Trek fans in the comics/illustration community don’t know his work. I sure didn’t. Maybe with the 50th anniversary of Trek, some adventurous soul will figure out a way to give Kanamori’s work the exposure and appreciation it deserves. Live long and prosper, y’all!


In The Weeds Progress: Character Designs

In the past I’ve not spent nearly as much time working on character designs for my books as I really should have. Certainly this was the case with Oyster War and as a result, I wound up having to do a substantial amount of pre-publication redrawing of the main characters–especially in the early pages where I was still basically working out the character designs as I went along. I vowed to avoid this pitfall with In the Weeds and indeed I’ve spent the last couple of months with my nose to the grindstone, really trying to come up with solid, fully developed character designs.

Design Challenges

As mentioned in my last post on In the Weeds, I’m using animal characters for the book. One consistent question I get when I’ve described this book to people is, “Why animals?” Short answer, “Why not?”

Comics (and children’s book illustration for sure) has a long and rich tradition of using animal characters. It’s part of comics’ formal tool kit–and a part of it that doesn’t seem to be utilized as much as it could be. The animal comics tradition seems to me to be more vibrant in Europe than in the North America. Is this maybe because of Europe’s historical infatuation with Carl Barks’ Donald Duck comics? I don’t know. Whatever the case, though, with a few exceptions (Usagi Yojimbo comes immediately to mind, as does Mouse Guard) most modern North American comics with animal characters are coming out of the furry subculture and few manage to penetrate into either mainstream or alternative comics readership here. I’d love to see more animal comics front and center in the North American comics scene.

One of the main challenges I faced in designing the animal characters for In the Weeds was making them sufficiently human-like to be able to walk and interact, while also giving them distinctly animal-like features. There’s a reason a lot of animal comics default to a sort of “house style” of essentially putting an animal head and tail on a human body: a human body interacts well with its environment and other human-like characters in a way that can be difficult for more animal-like designs. You can see, for example, how this sort of design (by Jen Suzuki, in this case) is very well suited to being just dropped into a real world environment:


For me, the gold standard of animal characters that really look a lot like animals yet are able to work in a real world environment are Richard Scarry’s characters:


I love how Scarry’s characters retain many of their distinctive animal features–hooves, haunches, etc.–and yet are sufficiently anthropomorphized to walk upright, use their hands like people, and otherwise interact with a fairly realistic environment. I knew my characters would need to be somewhat more human-like than Scarry’s, but I definitely took my cues from him design-wise.

Another big challenge with animal characters is scale. Again, it’s obvious why the default way to deal with this is to normalize the body sizes of the characters–regardless of what animals they’re based on. Not doing so creates a very tricky problem, given that the real world around us is designed mostly for interaction from similarly sized creatures: us humans. If you don’t standardize the size of your animal characters, you have to radically re-imagine the environment–something that the recent film Zootopia did brilliantly. Here’re the relative scales of the main animal types in Zootopia:

New canvas

If you’ve seen the film, you know that the makers of Zootopia went to some pretty impressive efforts to create a unique world in which characters of radically different scales can interact.

With In the Weeds designs, I wanted to preserve some of the size differential, but because of the nature of the story I also want the characters to be able to operate in a world that’s fairly similar to our own. So ultimately, what I wound up doing was just decreasing the “dynamic range” a bit. There’s still a size differential among the characters, but it’s just been normalized enough so that they can function in a largely real life environment.

And of course, the biggest challenge for me design-wise is simply that this is all new to me. I’ve never done a comic with animal characters before, so I’m really just figuring it all out as I go along.

The Final Designs

I tried out a lot of different animals, but eventually settled on a cast that I thought looked good together and showed off a wide variety of shapes and features. Here’s me sketching/designing from photo reference of various animals:

animal practice 01

So, here they are. The protagonist of the book is employed as a chef at a country club and plays in a band on the weekends, so I needed to develop two sets of character designs: the work characters and the non-work characters. He’re the former:


That’s our protagonist second from the left. (These characters all had names at one point, but I’ve decided to change most of them; I’ve just been referring to them by their animal names.) I initially had a pig character in place of the yak, but I decided it would be best if none of the characters were animals that are commonly used as food.1 It just seemed weird, ya know?

And here’re the non-work characters:


The four on the right comprise the rock band in the story. I tried to give each of them a nineties-appropriate dress style. The badger has a Happy Mondays/nineties 70s revival look. The poodle is loosely based on the great drummer, Cindy Blackman. The rhino’s body shape and stage moves (but not clothes at this point–I’ll probably change his style of dress) are coming from Minutemen guitarist D. Boone.2 The hyena, Kathleen, is an amalgam of various riot grrrrl band members style-wise. (“Katheen Hyena”/”Kathleen Hanna“… get it? Har har har.)

One nice thing about using animal characters is that it’s pretty easy to get really recognizable, distinctive body shapes–something that I’ve always struggled with when using human characters. Without even really thinking about it during design phase, the characters easily pass the “silhouette test.”

silhouette kitchen

silhouette band

So, what’s next? I’m probably going to spend a bit of time doing loose sketches of these characters in various poses and with various facial expressions, just to make sure I’ve got all that well ironed out before I put pencil to page. But, beyond that and a few small revisions to the script, I’m just about ready to start thumbnailing!


1. Yes, I know that people sometimes eat sheep, but it’s not like people are regularly chomping down McLambchops.

2. Yes, I also know that The Minutemen are from the 80s, not the 90s. The Minutemen are so awesome that they transcend all eras and are not bound by the normal constraints of space/time.


Come See Me at TCAF in Toronto!


I’ll be appearing this weekend, May 14-15, at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) in Toronto Canada. If you’re in the area, please come out and say Hi! It’s held at the Toronto Reference Library and is free and open to the public. You can find out more details here: http://torontocomics.com/

I’ll be seated at: Q13 on the second floor of the library.

Additionally, I’ll be participating in the following programming:

11:00 – 12:00 Saturday — Historical Comics panel with Chester Brown, Tony Cliff, Ben Towle, Sarah Winifred Searle. Moderated by David Humphreys.

2:00 – 2:30 Saturday – Draw Along! live drawing in the kids’ area.


Oyster War: A 2016 Eisner Nominee!


I’m excited (and frankly, pretty surprised) to announce that Oyster War has been nominated for a 2016 Eisner award in the category of Best Publication for Teens. This is my fourth (!) Eisner nomination and as much as I’d love to finally take one of these things home, that’s some pretty stiff competition I’m up against. I think the obvious shoe-in is either March: Book Two or SuperMutant Magic Academy. Regardless, I managed to get a room for San Diego Comic-Con (or Comic-Con International: San Diego, as it’s officially known these days) and am considering going out to at least attend the ceremony.


Come See Me In Denver at The Very First DINK!

I’ll be making my first trip to Denver, Colorado this weekend to be a guest at the inaugural DINK–Denver Independent Comic and Art Expo. The festival happens Friday 3/25 from 4-9 PM and Saturday 3/26 from 10 AM until 7 PM. I’m really excited about this show! The people running it are great long-time indie comics folk and the guest list is outstanding. If you’re anywhere near Denver this weekend, please consider coming by to check things out. I’m sure hoping this will be just the first of many successful DINKs.

I’ll be at table D-37, as you can see on the map below. Look for my big banner featuring the cover of Oyster War.

Also, I’ll be doing one panel:  The Process of Historical Comics and Their Icons, which is on Friday at 5:45 PM in the Mezzanine Room. Joining me on this panel will be a couple of fantastic cartoonists: Box Brown and Nate Powell.

DINK_MainExpoHall_Exhibitor_List_2016_Version2 copy


Post-Oyster War Project: In The Weeds

What’s Next?

I’ve still got a small handful of Oyster War promo appearances to do (DINK, TCAF, probably HeroesCon), but with that book now squarely behind me production-wise, I’ve been ruminating a bit on what to do next. Like most comics-drawing folks, there’s always a voice in the back of my head making me feel bad that my comics aren’t generating a more substantial share of my day to day income–and a few months back I wound up chatting with a fairly well-known comics agent about precisely this. In so many words, what this agent basically said to me was: “You make great comics, but if you want to make an actual living at this, do all ages/YA books. Look at what wins Eisners in the kids/YA comics categories and do stuff like that.” This is about as solid a bit of advice as you’re going to get about making a living in comics and I began putting together the bare bones story for an young adult GN that I’d been thinking about for a while.

Typical of me, however, the more I tried to dig into this YA story, the more I wound up thinking about an old script that I wrote well before I began drawing Oyster War: In the Weeds.

In the Weeds is a story about cooking and playing rock music that takes place in the mid 1990s. I’ve posted bits and pieces about it here before as far back as 2010. Unlike this (possible) all ages book, In the Weeds isn’t something that any big trade publisher is be likely to give me an advance for–in fact, I suspect that if I move forward with In the Weeds, I’ll wind up doing it the same way I did with Oyster War: just doing the book on my own time, at my own pace, putting it  online, and seeing if anyone wants to publish it when it’s done.

So, why In the Weeds, not the YA book? Because of what cartoonist Ron Wimberly says:

“It’s either HELL yeah. Or NO.”

— Ron Wimberly

In a nutshell: Life’s too short–and the wages of comics too minimal–to spend time making any comic other than exactly the one you want to be making right now. I’ll continue to work on my YA story as time allows (and I’ve got a bit of a story and some in-progress character designs), but for right now what’s interesting to me is In the Weeds, so that’s what I’ve been working on.

In the Weeds:

I started by re-reading my original script. Not surprisingly, I’ve begun by doing a pretty substantial overhaul of it. I’m rewriting a few of the male characters as females to get a more natural gender balance and I’m rewriting the main character a bit as well to make him more empathetic and less of an overt smart-ass. But generally, I’m happy with the overall story and structure–which for me is the hard part of the writing process.

The character designs, though, had been really frustrating me. I didn’t like the few I’d done back in 2010, but even after a fair amount of sketchbook noodling over the last month or so, I still had a bunch of stuff that I didn’t like much. Here’re a few examples:

These aren’t terrible, but they weren’t really grabbing me–other than maybe a few of the ones in that fourth image grid. In the midst of all this I’d been reading the amazing French BD, District 14–an absolutely wonderful alternate history 1940’s noir comic featuring humans, aliens, and anthropomorphic animals. It occurred to me late one night that In the Weeds might work really well with…

Animal Characters!

Before digging into some animal character designs, I did a bit of visual research. On a lark, I decided to resurrect my old Pinterest account for this purpose, which has actually worked out really well. The bulletin board layout of Pinterest is great for taking in a ton of visual information at a glance and the handy “pin it” widgets make it easy and quick to add any image you happen across to a reference board. I can also display a board on my Surface while I work from it in my sketchbook out in the living room, away from my studio in the evenings. So as to not flood my followers (not that I probably have many after a few years of inactivity) with a bunch of personal photo reference, I set up my In the Weeds boards as private boards. I created one board for period 90s clothes reference, one for examples of anthro character designs (mostly from children’s books), and several for particular animals.

Here’re screen caps of the first two I mention:



I’ve also been watching and sketching from then-contemporary movies from the mid 90s. Here’s a sketchbook page of stuff from Singles:


To get warmed up for some animal designs, I did a bunch of sketchbook drawing–some original designs and some drawn from examples on my Pinterest page:

I was still wanting a bit more practice with animal designs and I also wanted to work out a look and feel for the inking and coloring (or gray-toning as the case is here) so I decided to draw some of my favorite existing animal characters in period garb. I stated with some Richard Scarry characters:

Then I did a few from District 14:

Finally, I started working on some original designs:


Of these, I think the poodle and rhino are keepers, and the badger and bear could be as well with a bit of further work.

One thing I’ve really been struggling with is line weight. I started seriously working on comics in the late 90s/early 2000s when folks like Charles Burns and Dan Clowes were the big influences in the indie scene. They in turn were largely drawing influence from North American comic book artists from the 50s and 60s–most of whom inked with a brush and consequently featured a heavy, variable-width inking line. This sort of inking, though, seems to have fallen out of vogue recently and I’ve even found myself using less and less line weight. Oyster War, for example, was pretty much all dip pen. I’ve been experimenting a bit with a nearly “dead” line weight–which you see all over the place these days–but I seem to find myself gravitating back to tools with at least a bit of variation to them.

Here’s an experiment with a rhino character. The top is nearly dead line weight. The middle is a inker with a bit of variation used throughout. The bottom features heavier variable ink lines for the contours of the image but nearly dead line weight for the hatching.


I’m not sure where all this will wind up, but hopefully I’ll have a good batch of character designs wrapped up by about the time I finish my script revisions and then I can get rolling on.. my next comic!

In the Weeds! Coming who knows when! Hopefully published by someone! Woo-hoo!


Comics Retailers: Get Hand-Drawn Oyster War Book Plates!

As recently highlighted in Diamond Daily, Oni Press and I worked out a great Oyster War promotion: Order at least three copies of Oyster War and get a free hand-drawn book plate of an Oyster War character. The verbiage in the Diamond describes the plates as “ultra rare,” but note that these are not just “rare”–they’re individually hand drawn by me! As you can see here, these are drawn on book plate templates intended to be run through a printer, but instead I’ve hand drawn characters on them in brush pen. Each one is signed and dated, ready to be peeled off and stuck into a copy of Oyster War.



James Sturm Lecture/Ten Years of CCS Exhibit

On Wednesday I drove up to Boone, NC to hear James Sturm talk about the history of The Center for Cartoon Studies and to check out the exhibit of CCS-related original art at the Turchin Center. The exhibit was organized by my friend comics writer/comics professor Craig Fischer, who you may know from our annual “mega-panels” at HeroesCon. James was a professor at SCAD when I was a student there years ago, so it was great to have an opportunity to catch up with him as well. I’ve been up to visit CCS a few times, but the most recent was in maybe 2006, so it’s been a while.

James’s lecture covered a bit of his comics-making process and then went over the “origin story” of CCS. Afterwards there was a reception in the CCS exhibit hall. Two bits of interesting info that came up in my conversation with James earlier in the day: First, he has not one, but two, forthcoming children’s books from TOON Books. I got a look at a physical copy of one and a PDF of the other. They both look great. Second: In a discussion about what original comics art folks owned, James mentioned that either he or the school (I can’t recall which) has never-seen sample pages that Craig Thompson did for the James Sturm written Fantastic Four series, Unstable Molecules. Apparently Thompson was considered for art on the book before Guy Davis was settled on. The pages include the (in)famous “Johnny Storm masturbating” scene.

Here’s a small handful of pictures from the event:

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