David Petersen: Ben, You have worked in animation, toy design and how-to-draw books, and also in comics, what keeps you coming back to sequential storytelling?
Ben Caldwell: While character design and world building are fun -- and easy -- at the end of the day you only get to know these characters and worlds through the stories that revolve around them. When I design characters etc, I’m instinctively building stories around them. Who is the person? Why are they dressed like that? How did they get their hands on a giant cannon made out of butter?
So I always come back to telling stories, although I’m perhaps not as good at it as I’d like. There’s just no
substitute for the visceral connection that you make with your audience through a story.
As for comics specifically, there are so many unique ways you can play with storytelling in comics that you just can't find in, say, prose or film-making Of course the opposite is also true, but I’m a visual person and when I try to write prose, I find myself trying to describe everything in ridiculous detail. As for film, comics are a unique medium where you can create something with the same bombast, without a budget of millions or limitations of special effects, actors, etc.
The downside is that you are trying to create something without a budget of millions and special effects, actors etc.
David: You tend to work on all-ages material, Your own series Dare Detectives is in the spirit of a great old Saturday Morning cartoon, is the choice of tone a purposeful one? Or is it more a reflex that comes naturally?
Ben: I have a lot of stories stuck in my head, and a lot of them are definitely NOT all-ages. One particular story I’m doing right now is way too cussin' and violence and anatomically correct drawings to be kid-friendly.
But the all-ages stuff is a lot of fun. Of course, I’m also very contrary, so the fact that so many people are so contemptuous of all-ages books probably motivates me as well. A big part of it comes down to the fact that certain types of stories are, well, not necessarily childish, but certainly not "realistic". So I like to skip the superficial veneer and let ridiculous things be ridiculous, and that makes a lot of adults uncomfortable.*
*These people are stupid. Avoid them.
David: The story you created for Legends of the Guard, can you talk a little about the subject of the story and where the idea came from?
Ben: I knew I didn't have time for a long story, so I wanted something short and sweet. Or at least short. One thing most of my stories feature is the glory of unintended consequences -- wait, the two things most of my stories feature are the glory of unintended consequences, and a bit of unnecessary theatricality.
One of my favorite bits of mouse guard (outside of the world building) is the intimate nature of the characters, so I wanted to do a small story. So I worked both all that one story by watching my insane twin daughters, and thinking what sort of stupid antics they would come up with to stop villains. The story pretty much wrote itself from there.
David: How do you proceed with a story after you have an idea, what is your process? Script? Thumbnails? Voodoo Magic?
Ben: I used to do full scripts, but I realized no matter how many revisions I did, I would always make further changes at the thumbnail or pencil stage. The fact is that the brain processes information in prose/manuscript form differently than it does images, and comics are essentially a visual medium.
So I usually start with a general breakdown of a plot, punctuated on the one hand with scraps of scenes or dialogue that just pop into my head and work, and on the other hand with a very calculated look at the characters, how they should act/react/interact, and what that means in terms of getting them from the beginning of the story to the end. As I get older, I find my stories being less driven by a pre-ordained plot (except maybe the loosest conceptual idea), and more with getting the characters nailed down, then turning them loose and seeing what happens.
Procedurally, once I have an outline of the overall plot, I will break it down into scenes. I've done enough GNs and had enough experience with building up and cutting down scenes to fit pre-allotted page counts that I have a pretty good idea of how many pages a particular scene can take without overwhelming the rest of the story. it sounds inartistic, but I like to break things down as hierarchical information. That is, what is the overall gist of scene x? Then, what is the gist of each pair of pages (in comics and children's books, pages should always be worked in pairs, since that is inevitably how the viewer will experience them)? Finally, what is the most important idea for each individual page?
From that I do thumbnails, usually doing a whole scene's worth on a single sheet, so I can see the scene as a whole. Usually I put a note under each page(s) like "Toby punches goons", "he misses, falls into cotton candy machine" etc, before making any drawings. I’ll often drop balloons with rough dialogue in at this stage, just to account for the space that will be needed for lettering later.
IMPORTANT: I try to pop out the thumbnails as quickly as possible, without over thinking them. First off, it's just too easy to get paralyzed at this stage, and it's important to keep momentum. Second, it's much easier to do something concrete and say "oh wait, the butter cannon sounded awesome, but now that I’m looking at the drawing on the page, a PUDDING cannon is much more logical", instead of staring at a blank sheet and trying to guess ahead of time what will work or not. At this stage there is no such thing as bad ideas, just ideas that can be improved.
As I get older, pencilling gets harder because my drawing has improved like a mazillion percent, but I’ve become even more sensitive to the nuances of expressions, body language etc. cartooning makes it even worse -- if you have a drawing with a hundred lines and one is out of place, who cares? But if you have a drawing with three lines, one out-of-place line is really going to stand out.
Even at the pencilling stage I will find myself reworking certain panels or even scenes. It’s not the sort of thing that makes editors sleep well at night, but at every stage of the storytelling, as you get closer to the final page you might notice new problems that weren't apparent at earlier stages; or to put it more positively, you notice new opportunities to tell a better story.
David: A lot of talk on this blog is about process & materials. Can you share with the readers what art supplies you use for each step of the artwork on a story like this? (paper, pencils, ink, digital program...feel free to list brands.)
Ben: I use generic #2 mechanical pencils, because I hate to pause and sharpen them. At first it was just a matter of convenience, but I found that after I became used to them, I could get a huge range of line weight and sensitivity. But I am obsessed with drawing on laser print paper, particularly Xerox digital Xpressions. So the thumbs were done on that paper, then I printed them slightly larger in blue line (on more laser paper), to do the final "clean" art. In this case, the trick was to keep the final pencil art somewhat loose.
In any case, I was surprised at how closely the final art followed the thumbnails in the MGL story. There are usually a LOT of changes during finalization, either tweaking poses or, as often as not, completely rewriting pages.
The coloring was all digital (photoshop). I tried to keep the process simple, partly so that it could be standardized and quickly replicated throughout the pages, partly because the simpler that stage is, the more time is left for working/reworking the actual drawings and storytelling that are the guts of the comic. I laid down an antique paper texture for ground, then colored with flat colors at 66% opacity. This way you can easily create solid color with a few strokes, but since it isn't full opacity, there's a certain organic buildup. In a few places, I also used levels to create surreal color shifts.
David: What does Ben Caldwell like to do when he’s not making comics?
Ben: That’s between me and my parole officer.
David: Thanks for a really fun story Ben. I’m excited for the fans to read it. Where should people go if they want to know more about you and your work?
Ben: You can always follow me on twitter (@bencaldwellart) or my blog (purge theory.blogspot.com), and, when the stars align, you can visit my website www.daredetectives.com. Those are good places to start, because I update them regularly, and I’m going to be making some announcements for future projects soon!
If you want to get your hands physically on my work, short of burgling my house you can buy my sketchbooks online, or find my classics comics, "dare detectives" comics, and how-to-cartoon books at fine bookstores everywhere. I presume shady bookstores also sell them.
Ben's story A Bone To Pick will appear in Legends of the Guard
volume 2 # 1 along with stories by Stan Sakai, Nick Tapalansky & Alex Eckman-Lawn
Watercolor Wednesday:Here's another look at last week's two watercolor pieces I offered up for sale. For inspiration I looked up images of old men for fun expressions and wrinkles. First up is a blind gnome...with dandelion puff balls in the background.I went with the Rien Poortvliet costume and colors for this guy.
San Diego Comic Con: July 17-21
Boston Comic Con: August 3-4
Baltimore Comic Con: September 7-8
New York Comic Con: October 10-13
North Carolina Comic Con: November 9-10